LORAIN — As the city grapples with its blighted housing stock, Council will look at increasing the capacity of the Housing Court Docket, following a committee recommendation Monday night.
The Finance and Claims Committee, in conjunction with an All Council Committee, recommended to regular Council to increase appropriations, allowing for an additional 500 cases a month be processed, taking the total number to 650. Currently, the docket handles roughly 150 a month.
Safety/Service Director Dan Given presented the city’s need to address its housing code violations, while Law Director Patrick Riley explained what the city would need to do to more than triple the number of property owners cited on a monthly basis.
The need comes out of the city’s goal to address more of its blighted or vacant properties or houses that have fallen into disrepair to allow officials to attract investment and continue lowering the crime rate.
“For years and years and years, this has been allowed,” Given said. “We ask the question why aren’t other communities having this same problem or why is this community better than this community — it comes down to basic enforcement. Either we’re going to try and enforce these issues or we’re going to turn a blind eye to them. But it’s the administration, the mayor’s stance that if we do not clean up our own backyard, we’re not going to have the ability to attract developers and everybody else into our community to invest the millions of dollars that are needed to ultimately bring more tax dollars in that will ultimately improve our community even more.”
In his report, Riley estimated the total additional cost would be $134,424 per year, which could be offset by the fines and court costs paid on the additional citations. Currently, at least 70 percent of housing court fines are paid. In a report to Given and Riley, Lorain Municipal Court administrator Scott Stewart estimated $29,726 collected through Aug. 20 for 2018 in housing docket cases, including court costs, with 425 total cases filed. Judge Mark Mihok estimated the city is on track to file roughly 900 cases this year.
Given and Kellie Glenn, Building, Housing and Planning director, have been patrolling the city on Wednesday afternoons, Given said, and are seeing issues throughout the wards. Council and the administration also have taken note of the number of properties in disrepair — with inspectors instructed to concentrate on “low-hanging fruit” or houses with major violations. Though Council members address some concerns about favoritism or punitive measures against low- or fixed-income residents, Given said violations would be cited regardless, and there are programs in place to help those who qualify.
Given said to get these properties in order, it may take some repetition — as homeowners or landlords have ignored the letters or mailings haven’t made it to their intended recipients. Others have refused to fix issues, or only addressed them partially.
Under the Building, Housing and Planning department, Riley’s study revealed that an additional part-time administrative staffer would be necessary to help the current Housing Court employee, Heather Graves, prepare the paperwork required in the additional cases. His study estimates that person at 20 hours a week at $25.25 an hour, would cost a total of $26,260. The department also would need envelopes and certified mail to issue violations — an additional $5,000 a year.
“You have to understand when we’re researching trying to find who these property owners are, that is Heather doing that, solely by herself, in addition to entering the violations and then when we get people calling in for complaints, she’s handling those,” Glenn said. “She is the sole person that grants the extensions. In addition to that, we have two electrical inspectors, two building inspectors, and two housing inspectors. When you talk about the volume that’s coming in, just Dan and I going out every Wednesday for four hours, we’re writing up those violations, we’re getting at least 100 violations.”
To mitigate the additional work load generated by the 500 more cases, Riley’s report outlined the need for a number of part-time positions throughout the city. These positions would not receive insurance benefits, but the city would pay in to Social Security and unemployment for each individual.
Under Lorain Municipal Court, Riley estimated having an additional weekly session scheduled for Fridays. A lawyer to serve as magistrate would be needed for roughly four hours a week. Riley estimated that magistrate could be secured for as little as $75 an hour, or $15,600 a year. A bailiff would be needed, but current staff levels can provide that without costing the city extra. Current staffing in the court’s administrative staff could also absorb prosecutors’ needs for the additional sessions.
An additional administrative staff person would need to be hired to assist the magistrate — working an estimated eight hours a week at $25.25 an hour or $10,504 a year.
In Riley’s department, he estimates the city would need to hire an additional part-time prosecutor for four hours a week, at $50 an hour or $10,400 a year. He said the department may be able to absorb the additional cost, as Prosecutor Barry Motsch retired at the end of August, allowing the department to realign its salaries. The cost of another part-time prosecutor was included in his $134,424 estimate.
Administrative staff would also be needed, with Riley estimating an additional part-time person for 20 hours a week at $25.25 per hour, or $26,260 a year. His staff also recommended purchasing labeling software and a printer to prepare case labels, costing $1,000.
To more effectively serve complaints, Riley suggested using a Lorain Police Department auxiliary officer, at $15 an hour for 32 hours a week — $25,000 a year. Right now, complaints are successfully served only about 50 percent of the time, due to absent landlords, missing Social Security numbers or homeowners being difficult to track down. By hiring an auxiliary officer with some investigative skill, the city would hope to serve more complaints successfully, getting more individuals into court and increasing the number of violations cleaned up or addressed.
Riley’s report did not include additional money needed for inspectors, as that money would not come from the general fund. The Building Department currently has two openings for housing code inspectors and is in the process of doing a salary survey to review its pay scale compared to other cities in the county. Glenn acknowledged the pay rate for inspectors is low — currently taking a new inspector two years to reach their full salary, and even then only making around $19 an hour, making it difficult to attract qualified applicants.
After lengthy discussion between members, the issue now moves to City Council, with the next meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday in Council Chambers.