Wichita tries triage system to deal with neighborhood complaints

A postal worker decides to walk around the yard at a house northeast of Meridian and Pawnee. “I don’t like walking through that yard, especially when it’s wet,” she said. City inspectors recently cited the owner of the house for allowing the grass and weeds to exceed the 12-inch limit. (June 28, 2014)
A postal worker decides to walk around the yard at a house northeast of Meridian and Pawnee. “I don’t like walking through that yard, especially when it’s wet,” she said. City inspectors recently cited the owner of the house for allowing the grass and weeds to exceed the 12-inch limit. (June 28, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Someone slipped into Keith Alberson’s Wichita neighborhood overnight recently and dumped a couch in a shallow ditch.

“That’s just wrong,” he said.

In another part of town, Heidi Robey lives down the street from an unoccupied house with a yard that’s a jungle of tall weeds and grass.

“I’m sure there are snakes in there,” she said.

The couch was illegally dumped; the yard is in violation of city code.

The Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department deals with such issues daily.

“We’re inundated with cases,” said Tom Stolz, who heads up the department.

So much so that starting this past week, the department’s neighborhood inspections switched to a triage system and made other changes in an attempt to unclog the backlog.

“Everything that rolls in can’t be treated exactly the same,” Stolz said.

That’s something he learned from more than 30 years with the Wichita Police Department – including his last 12 as a deputy chief.

“Any complaint that comes in will be handled,” he said. “But those involving health and safety will be handled more quickly.

“Some things are code violations but are aesthetic in nature. It looks bad, but no one is going to get hurt.”

Chipped paint on a house’s siding and abandoned couches look bad, but people can get hurt or sick from collapsing roofs, faulty electrical wiring and seeping sewage.

MABCD became a joint city-county agency in January 2013. One side handles permits, plan reviews and building inspections for new construction and remodeling.

The other side – neighborhood inspections – deals with residential zoning but also areas where people’s lives can get pretty messy: housing, tall grass and weeds and nuisance issues.

You’re looking at such things as dangerous and unsafe structures, illegal dumping, abandoned furniture, junk cars in yards and surfacing sewage.

All the way down to neighbors who leave their trash cans out by the curb all week.

Shortly after taking on his new role in November 2012, Stolz discovered neighborhood inspections had been responding to every situation the same.

That led to serious issues not being handled as quickly as necessary.

“You only have so many inspectors, so many police officers,” Stolz said. “Call it triage or prioritization, you have to assess the seriousness and respond accordingly.”

Until last week’s change, every complaint was expected to receive a response within 72 hours.

Cases involving health and safety will now draw responses within 24 hours, if not immediately, he said.

Mid-level issues – such as tree waste, graffiti, exterior housing violations – will get the 72-hour response. Others – such as trash continually left by the curb and lighting complaints – will be longer.

“We will get to them,” Stolz said.

The everything-the-same approach has meant some existing housing cases are years old.

“No housing case should go that long without reconciliation or court prosecution,” Stolz said.

‘Like a jungle’

Each of the city’s 15 neighborhood inspectors carries a caseload of 700 to 800, a number that Stolz said he hopes to slice to 200 to 300 by moving cases faster with a more streamlined process. Right now, two seasonal employees handle tall grass and weeds issues.

Cities have far more regulations than the county, so the county piece of neighborhood inspections has only one inspector.

Grass or weeds more than 12 inches high break Wichita’s code.

The city has worked 1,400 complaints about tall grass and weeds since April, with the bulk of those coming since nearly 101/2 inches of rain fell in June, said Deb Legge, one of two neighborhood inspection administrators.

Last year – a wet one until the fall – the city worked 3,900 complaints about tall grass and weeds. The drought year of 2012, however, saw 4,500 cases.

“It could be that people are realizing that we are going to mow and bill them,” Legge said about why this year’s pace thus far is behind the 2012 figure.

If the city has to mow your property, you’ll have to pay an average of $150 – though the price depends on the size of the area and how much junk is in the lot, Stolz said.

If rodents or predator animals are seen inside the tall-grass area, Stolz said the problem could be considered a health and safety issue and get bumped up the priority list.

Generally, though, it takes about three weeks from the time the property owner is notified to when the contracted crew shows up to mow.

Mowing would be good news for Robey and her neighbors who live near the unoccupied house northeast of Pawnee and Meridian where the height of the yard’s weeds and grass is measured in feet, not inches.

On June 26, the city notified the property owner of the violation, as well as some exterior housing issues, Legge said. An inspector will check on the property again Thursday before requesting a work order to mow.

Robey said the property has been overgrown with grass and weeds since her family moved into the neighborhood a year and a half ago.

“It’s an eyesore,” she said. “It’s like a jungle.”

About 615 of those properties on the original list of 1,400 are still waiting to be mowed by the owner or the city. Contracted city crews are able to mow about 60 lots a week, so that pace would never catch up in a timely fashion to a need that grows daily.

“You hope to get better than 50 percent compliance from the property owners after they get a notice,” Stolz said, “so that reduces the number. It’s certainly more cost-effective for them if they mow it.”

A compliance rate from past years wasn’t available, because the city hasn’t tracked it – a change Stolz plans to make.

With recent rain driving up the number of complaints, some housing inspectors will be asked to help verify cases so they can be processed faster, he added.

“The public needs to be patient,” Stolz said. “We’ll get ’em mowed and cleaned up.”

Illegal dumping

The city worked 2,900 nuisance complaints in the first six months of the year. Through the end of May, the city received another 415 complaints that turned out to be unfounded, Legge said.

Through the end of June, 614 housing complaints were found to be legitimate. Another 155 through May were unfounded.

Dumped or abandoned old furniture is the most common nuisance complaint, Stolz said.

Determining ownership – regardless of the issue – can be the biggest factor in slowing down the process, he added. Bank foreclosures, properties in the process of sale and disputes between relatives can make determining a property’s owner difficult.

“Sometimes they seem to disappear off the face of the planet,” Stolz added. “But in my world, that dumped mattress belongs to someone.

“I can’t just go take it.”

Unless, of course, it’s in the street, creating a safety hazard. Then a call to public works brings a truck right away to pick it up.

But most abandoned mattresses, couches and other bulky items fall in the category of illegal dumping.

“It’s increasing in scope,” Stolz said. “We’re seeing pickups with a placard on the side – no trash hauling license – picking up trash in one neighborhood and dumping it in another.”

The penalty is a fine that’s determined by a municipal court judge.

“If it’s minimal, then for a lot of these guys, it’s just part of doing business,” Stolz said. “They’re picking it up for $100 and maybe being fined $25.”

But first, offenders have to be caught.

“Illegal dumping cases are a challenge to prosecute,” Stolz said. “It’s like trying to catch a murder in progress. It just doesn’t happen very often.”

Couches and other junk are being dumped at the site of unoccupied duplexes near 13th and 15th streets, between Kansas and Minneapolis and just east of I-135.

Mennonite Housing hopes to close on its purchase of the property in two months, so it can begin constructing a second phase of its French Quarter project of remodeled duplexes and apartments, said Andy Bias, the nonprofit’s president.

Mennonite Housing refurbished other duplexes just north of that site for the French Quarter’s first phase, which was completed about a year ago. Illegal dumping also was a problem then, so Bias had extra trash dumpsters put on the property.

“They were filled to the brim every week,” he said, “and more junk was dumped around it. It just attracted more dumping, so I removed the dumpsters.”

During construction of French Quarter’s second phase – which should begin later this year – Bias said he plans to put a construction fence around the site to reduce the illegal dumping.

“It’s an epidemic,” he said. “It’s sad.”

No argument from Alberson, who discovered the dumped couch by his house recently. He lives near 14th and Pennsylvania, not far from the French Quarter project.

“I don’t know how many times we’ve had to go outside and run someone off,” he said, “but you can’t see everything. They must have slipped that couch in on us during the night.”

City inspectors pick through illegally dumped trash, searching for names and addresses so they can identify the trash’s owner. Alberson and his neighbors have done the same thing and found some owners.

“We gave the information to the city,” he said. “That pretty much calmed things down.”

Cul-de-sacs and alleys are favorite spots for illegal dumping. Some of it is organized by unlicensed haulers charging a fee, and some by individuals who don’t want to pay to take the trash to the landfill, Stolz said.

“No one should dump trash on their neighbors’ yards or in cul-de-sacs,” he said, noting that the county occasionally offers sites where some items can be taken at no charge. “There are legal, relatively inexpensive ways to handle it.”

Stolz said it’s important for residents to watch for illegal dumpers, get vehicle descriptions and tag numbers and report them to authorities.

That’s what Alberson is doing.

“Hopefully, we can get it nipped in the bud,” he said. “Not everyone lives in a million-dollar house.

“You have to take pride in the community where you live. If you don’t, what else do you have?”