CODE ENFORCEMENT AS A REVENUE STRATEGY FOR VENTURA
This edition of Res Publica is not a typical VREG topic on City finances because it pertains to a recently published Grand Jury report; however, since the report addresses the aggressive collection of fees and charges by Code Enforcement, motivated by the need to raise more revenue, it is important to bring the details of that report to your attention as a citizen. It is also extremely important for all of our citizens to know how others in our community are treated by the City Manager staff, who constantly remind us of their transparency, fairness and a sense of partnership with all citizens.
GRAND JURY INVESTIGATES CITY OF VENTURA
[THE SHERIFF OF NOTTINGHAM IS BACK]
The 2011-2012 Ventura County Grand Jury opened an inquiry into the practices and fee policies of the City of Ventura and its Code Enforcement group regarding second dwelling units and non-dwelling structures for the period of 2009 through the present time, and have issued a report condemning the Code Enforcement practices.
The investigation started numerous citizens complained of:
- Aggressive enforcement actions
- verbal threats from code enforcement officers
- unauthorized searches
- threatening documents
- preferential treatment
- unfair appellate system
- arbitrary enforcement decisions holding current or successive property owners responsible for permits not obtained for work done prior to their ownership
- City Council and City Manager trying to raise more revenue through fines and higher permit fees to balance their budget
CODE ENFORCEMENT HISTORY
The backdrop for this started in 2008-2009, when the City began experiencing the financial impact of declining revenue, including revenue losses in Building & Safety and Planning. Faced with reductions in sales tax revenue, like all cities, this council compounded our revenue problem with a spending problem. Those spending decisions have come back to haunt us. As a reminder here are a few examples:
- $1,000,000 for a study to narrow Victoria Avenue
- Council enacting a 911 tax that had to be reversed
- A failed election effort to raise sales taxes
- Council’s waiver of $1.5 million in payment of permit fees, which should have been paid to Building & Safety for the WAV construction project
- Lending $2.5000,000 to the WAV developer, and then subordinating that loan to a CHASE loan on the same property. If CHASE elects not to extend their note again and forecloses on the 13 condos in this project that money is gone
- Unfunded pension liabilities for police and fire of $42,288,412. That does not include the cost of the unfunded benefits for all other employees, which is approximately $20,000,000
- In 2014 the City will have to pay CALPERS another $19,488,000, on top of payroll costs of $48,000,000, for a total of $67,488,000. That is 80% of our total annual general fund income
A SYSTEM OUT OF CONTROL
The Grand Jury pursued an active investigation of interviewing citizens, government employees and reviewing historical documents. The evidence and testimony of witnesses in such investigations is, by law, privileged and cannot be disclosed. This report is an indictment of a system out of control. Here is an even dozen out of 44 facts which the Grand Jury found to be true:
- The Code Enforcement officers were aggressive and used intimidation to gain authorized and unauthorized access to properties in the City
- Code Enforcement badges are designed to look similar to the Ventura Police Department badges. Code Enforcement officers are not peace officers
Code Enforcement officers claim to have more power than police officers relative to property matters
- Code Enforcement has acted on complaints that appear to be retaliatory in nature against neighbors
- The Chief Building Officer made recommendations and reports to the City Council to increase inspections, adopt regulations and programs to increase fees
- The City Community Development Department (Jeff Lambert) and Code Enforcement (Herr Stauffler) hold current property owners liable when no permit is found, for any work performed, even for work prior to ownership
- City permit and inspection record keeping responsibility is placed on the property owner by Code Enforcement staff. There is no legal requirement for property owners to retain such permits or maintain records
- The City lost and/or misfiled permit(s) and inspection records
- The City has some damaged and unreadable permits
- The previous Code Enforcement fees are arbitrary and have little monetary relationship to the cost of services
- The City considers the new code enforcement fees are not a tax. The Building & Safety Department permit and inspection process had been funded by the General Fund. The same inspection activities are now performed, except the funding comes from the new permit fees — charged to property owners that build or modify structures
- The City stated that finding more code violations does not have a direct financial impact on the Code Enforcement group, but does significantly raise the permit fees for Building & Safety, and likely saves Code Enforcement jobs
CITY OF VENTURA RESPONSE TO GRAND JURY REPORT
[LET THEM EAT CAKE]
The City administration published the following response:
“The City of Ventura and its City Code Enforcement staff are committed to preserving and promoting the safety of all who live, work and visit our community. City Manager Rick Cole has reviewed the Grand Jury’s report and acknowledges their suggested policy recommendations.
It should be noted that the report includes no specific example of the problems cited, nor any new information beyond the complaints publicly aired before the City Council and the Safe Housing Collaborative going back several years. Those concerns have been the subject of extensive Council and staff discussion and action, which have already resulted in changes to the City’s approach in promoting and enforcing the health, safety and zoning codes. It should also be noted that despite the public play of a few complaints, the City’s approach to code compliance is compassionate and patient in working with property owners.”
The response by the City to this report clearly demonstrates their lack of understanding, or constitutes a brazen and irresponsible attempt to obfuscate the truth when they state “the report includes no specific example of the problems cited” – in other words it is ”vague”.
A grand jury’s historic function, serving as a quasi-judicial body is to determine if there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and to protect citizens, including the obligation to “investigate and report on the operations, accounts, and records of a city’s officers, departments and functions…” They also have the duty to “inquire into the willful or corrupt misconduct in office of public officers of every description”.
The specific evidence and the identity and testimony of witnesses during a Grand Jury investigation are privileged and cannot by law be disclosed to anyone unless and until an indictment is issued. Their proceedings are conducted in private, and their reports are reviewed by County Counsel, or the District Attorney. For the City to now suggest that the report is without merit because it does not mention specific examples of wrongdoing or names of witnesses interviewed is ludicrous. Does the City staff really believe they are entitled to know the names of the people they are accused of intimidating, or whose properties were the subject of an illegal search?
City government and Code Enforcement officers serve a valuable and important service to our community, until they start acting like the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham, of Robin Hood fame, who was notorious for his use of force, intimidation, abuse of power and excessive punishment of the citizenry.
B. Alviani K. Corse T. Cook
J. Tingstrom R. McCord S. Doll
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