Monday, October 10, 2011

The Evolution Of Code Enforcement In Indianapolis

Normally any blog entry about Code Enforcement would get three readers.  But, given the decision to require that Pan Am Plaza and the garage underneath be repaired, despite their utility to the upcoming Super Bowl, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth about fee increases in the current campaigns, it seems to be just what is in order.

Let me state this right at the beginning.  Code Enforcement saw significant gains under two successive Mayors, to the benefit of all of Indianapolis.  This should not be a bad thing.

For the historical perspective, one has to go back to the first time Bart Peterson ran for Mayor.  It was clear that neighborhood organizations' number one issue was the total failure of code enforcement in the City.  Few violations were getting prosecuted, few inspections of new buildings were actually getting done, and the frustration with that situation was rising with each passing day.  Peterson took the issue seriously and I think his handling of it is one of the true successes of his administration.

Peterson hired a guy with experience in Virginia, Rick Powers.  Powers had seen what an effective code enforcement operation looked like.  He came into the Office of Code Enforcement, at the time under the Department of Metropolitan Development, and he shaped it up.  It took a couple of years to change the culture, but he turned it into an effective and efficient organization.  For the first time, residents of Indianapolis were seeing that the ordinances, when enforced, meant better, more enjoyable neighborhoods.  Inspections of the vast number of new homes were rising.  There were still problems as Peterson left office, but the trajectory of the Office of Code Enforcement was steep and in the right direction.

Enter Greg Ballard's term as Mayor.  Ballard kept Powers on at Code Enforcement.  By this time, the effectiveness and efficiency of the Office of Code Enforcement could best be appreciated by the huge backlog of cases in the zoning section of the Office of Corporate Council.  Chris Cotterill was chosen by Ballard to head up that Office.  He very soon came to understand that one prosecutor, no matter how dedicated, could not cover the volume of violations headed to the Environmental Court for adjudication.  He beefed up the staff working on zoning, much to the positive benefit of neighborhoods across the City.

Discussions moved toward spinning the Office of Code Enforcement out of the Department of Metropolitan Development and into its own Department.  Other changes would be rolled into it as well.

The Department of Code Enforcement (DCE) would take on some other functions, like licencing of certain businesses.  The requirement for licensing of taxis, massage parlors, escort services, and the like, was on the books, but largely ignored and not really pursued by the Office of Financial Management, which for some reason had the responsibility.  Taxis were the number one complaint of the downtown business community; to their minds negatively impacting the impression tourists have of Indianapolis.  

The number of code enforcement officers would be increased to ensure that all buildings were inspected during their construction.  This would not only ensure construction actually met the standards written into law, it would cause the overall insurance rates for homeowners to drop, because there was some assurance that the houses would stand.

And all of this would be funded by turning the new DCE into an entirely fee-based operation. 

Spinning the Office of Code Enforcement into the Department of Code Enforcement garnered nearly universal support.  One caveat was the requirement of the business community that the new fees be rolled in in two phases.  Other than that, there really was no discussion of those fees.

Proposal 177, 2009, was sponsored by Councillors Lincoln Plowman (R), Jackie Nytes (D), Brian Mahern (D) and Dane Mahern (D).  The synopsis of the proposal was:
amends the Code to establish a new city department of code enforcement, to consolidate into two sections the various fees to be collected by the new department, and to make corresponding technical corrections
The Rules Committee, Chaired by Councillor Bob Lutz (R), considered the proposal on May 12 and June 16.  Prop 177 passed out of committee with a unanimous vote of "do-pass recommendation".  Those voting in this committee were Republican Councillors Lutz, Cockrum and Plowman, and Democrats Gray, Mansfield and Sanders.  The only point of discussion that made it into the minutes of that committee meeting was to which Council committee the new department should report.  Nothing about the fees was noted.

The vote at the full Council meeting on Prop 177, 2009, was 28 yeas, 0 nays, and one absence (Moriarty-Adams).

The establishment of DCE concurrently raised 113 fees by my count.

In 2010, Prop 149 was introduced and raised 88 of the fees further.  This proposal was sponsored by Councillors Mike McQuillen (R), Lutz (R), and Mansfield (D).  The synopsis was:
amends the Code to add and amend various chapters related to license and permit fees to be collected by the department of code enforcement pursuant to a cost analysis study determining the cost of the services underlying these fees to the department
A study had been conducted of the amount of time and salaries required to do pretty much every task DCE would be engaged in. Those folks seeking permits would be charged the amount of money it cost the City to investigate and issue a permit - tailored to the type of permit being requested. Likewise, taxi inspections would be done for the first time and the license fee would cover the expense.  Inspections, etc., were also reviewed for exact cost to the City.

The vote in the committee was 6-1.  Those voting for a "do-pass recommendation" included Republican Councillors Lutz, Cockrum, McQuillen, and Vaughn, and Democrats Mansfield and Sanders.  The lone vote against was Republican Angel Rivera.

The full Council passed the fee increases by a vote of 22 to 6, with one absence (Bateman).  Those voting for the proposal were Republicans Cain, Cockrum, Day, Freeman, Hunter, Lutz, McHenry, McQuillen, Malone, Pfisterer, Scales, and Vaughn, and Democrats Evans, Gray, Lewis, Brian Mahern, Dane Mahern, Mansfield, Moriarty Adams, Nytes, Oliver, and Sanders.  Voting against the proposal was Libertarian Coleman, Repbulicans Cardwell, Rivera, and Speedy, and Democrats Brown and Minton-McNeil.

I agree with the fee increases.  It is, though, a matter of personal opinion that should guide the vote of the rest of the Indianapolis community on November 8.

I haven't heard anyone say they would seek to repeal the fee increases and return code enforcement and its other new duties back to funding through tax revenues.  Hopefully the neighborhoods of Indianapolis will see Code Enforcement blossom even further in effectiveness and efficiency under a third consecutive Mayor.  We will all be winners if that happens.


Jon said...

After reading all of the ordinances in today's paper I wonder just how much new regulations we really need.

Had Enough Indy? said...

That was the superbowl ordinance. I'm not a fan of that one.

Anonymous said...

Code enforcement has always been funded by fees. In fact, they used to give $800,000 a year, more or less to the Current Planning Section of DMD from their fees - Now they provide approximately $200,000 (reluctantly) - that reduction is the sole reason that Current Planning had to raise their fees greatly and eliminate some staff. DCE fees to fund a large expansion of high-level management - two deputy directors, etc. (yes there are more inspectors (who focus on revenue enhancement - by order)) no one in the city (rank and file) - except a few of the code enforcement and 25th floor flacks / hacks believe that there has been a marked improvement in enforcement - frankly, they would laugh at that statement. They do want revenue-generating agencies do - seek to generate revenue - which means they focus on the low-hanging fruit (and the press release ready action) and ignore the hard stuff.

Anonymous said...

nice article

Had Enough Indy? said...

anon 9:35 - thank you

anon said...

looks like "had enough indy" has had enough of my posting proof of code compliance corruption. he has removed my posting of a video showing corrupt city officials trying to rob me of my property!

Anonymous said...

As a church fish fry chairman, I was desperately surfing Indiana Electrical and Fire Codes trying to locate some information and happened upon this article.
Already disgusted from the rising cost of permits, etc., since the Super Bowl and stage collapse (we did not have the $300 cost until after Super Bowl), the need for ELECTRIC exit signs in our tent when we are an open sided tent that is not open after dark, and the heavy hand of the inspectors (who suddenly had issues with things that had been fine with them for 25 years), I am further frustrated by the convoluted websites. I can not find which office to call and when I did call the Indiana Association of Electrical Inspectors, it was only the South Bend area!
We are an open tent, in a large open parking lot, active during daylight hours, with no alcohol service, no space heaters, no open flame. Our tent is up for only a few days. Much different from a year-round restaurant that puts up a tent several times a year for specific events or holidays, has grills, space heaters, operates late into the evening, has paid employees, etc.
Trying to sort through the code is mind-numbing. Why isn't there just a number to call with questions?