HOUSING CODE Deficiencies disappoint enforcement director
Big fines often aren't the best remedy, one judge said.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mike Damiano hoped tougher housing code penalties introduced early this year would mean bigger fines that send offenders a strong message.
The city's housing code enforcement director so far is disappointed.
The first few cases prosecuted since city council approved the stiffer penalties -- upping the maximum $100 fine to $1,000 and six months in jail -- have continued resulting in fines of $100 or less.
"To this department, it's a major slap in the face," said Damiano. "It just blows me away."
The new penalties are working by pushing violators to clean up, even if they aren't ordering heavier fines or jail time, judges say, though Damiano said he hasn't seen that.
City leaders increased the penalties to prevent housing violation cases, especially recurring ones. The $100 fines or less did little to deter many owners from letting their properties decay, Damiano said.
Landlords especially would pay the fines without fixing the problems, figuring in the citations as a cost of doing business, he said.
Turning to judges
Damiano hoped judges would use the ability to impose fines of $250, $500 or more -- or perhaps a couple days spent in jail -- to address those previously unmoved by low fines.
"When we get to the judges, we're out of options," he said. "We're hoping something moves them [judges]."
That hasn't happened, yet, however.
Judge Robert Milich recently fined William W. Lyden of Kiowa Road $25 plus court costs for a housing code violation for failing to adequately maintain a house on East Judson Avenue.
A second charge, leaving a large feces-filled carpet in the front yard, was dismissed.
City records show the housing department started the Lyden case in January. Damiano said his department has dealt with Lyden's properties for years.
"A $25 fine ... is a poor message to send. I just can't understand it," he said.
Last month, Judge Robert Douglas gave Alphonso Robinson of McClure Avenue a $50 fine, court costs and six months' probation on a no contest plea to disorderly conduct. The charge was reduced from the original housing code violation for having junk and trash in the yard.
In October, Judge Elizabeth Kobly gave Keith McCain of McGuffey Road a $100 fine, court costs and six months' reporting probation, also on a no-contest plea to disorderly conduct reduced from the original housing code violation for having junk and trash.
A code violation case that started a year ago against an East Judson Avenue man whom the city has dealt with since 1989, Paul J. Driscoll, comes to court next month. Damiano is afraid what a light sentence there will mean for the future.
Damiano said judges' putting offenders on probation is helpful. Probation leaves the threat of a bigger fine or jail and keeps property owners from reverting back to their old behaviors, he said.
The small fines, however, aren't even covering the city's enforcement costs, Damiano said.
It costs the city about $40 per hour to have police officers on overtime -- since there is little time during regular shifts -- write tickets for housing violations, he said. There also are hours of court time for police, inspectors and prosecutors.
But ultimately it's about deterrence, not money, Damiano said.
"I don't work on commissions. All I want is results," he said.
Judges say the same thing but view the issue differently.
Judges Milich and Douglas say compliance is their goal.
The judges say they treat each case individually. Their sentencing factors include recommendations from housing inspectors, prosecutors and the attitude of the defendant.
People who make efforts to comply don't suffer as much as those who display little motivation, they say.
"I generally don't have a problem if the problem is getting solved," Judge Douglas said. "If it gets done, I'm OK with that."
Judge Elizabeth Kobly was away last week and wasn't available to comment. City Prosecutor Dionne Almasy didn't return calls seeking comment.
Judges Milich and Douglas say they like having tough penalties available and have used them before as necessary.
They believe the new possibility of bigger fines or jail has pushed more property owners to clean up. That wouldn't be reflected in court, however, since those cases are cleared up before reaching sentencing, Judge Douglas said.
Damiano said he hasn't noticed the deterrent effect yet. He pointed to the recent Lyden case; the home's caved-in foundation still isn't repaired.
Big fines or jail often aren't the best remedy, Judge Milich said.
Some people respond to minimal court action while others need stiffer sentences to understand the gravity of the problem, he said.
"See what it takes to get compliance. Usually, that's enough to get their attention. There's not always an automatic correlation" to big fines, Judge Milich said. "It depends on the individual."
Big fines on low-income people don't accomplish much, and jail time prevents people from fixing their problems, he said.
Judge Milich said that he understands the frustrations of housing officials but that their view isn't the only one.
"That's why you have those checks and balances," he said.