A committee of the Pine Bluff City Council on Tuesday spent more than an hour talking about blight removal and demolition of condemned structures but failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with the problem.
Council Member Donald Hatchett, chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee, opened the discussion by saying that the city should take advantage of the demolition equipment that the Urban Renewal Agency had purchased and has offered to donate to the Code Enforcement Department.
Last month, members of the council's Development and Planning Committee recommended that a resolution to accept that equipment, which is valued at close to $500,000, be approved by the full council, but only if a companion resolution to transfer two people who currently work for Urban Renewal and operate the equipment also be transferred to Code Enforcement.
Two members of the council's Administration Committee, Council members Steven Mays and Bruce Lockett, rejected the companion resolution last month, but its chairman, Council Member Lloyd Holcomb Jr., said he would let the full council decide the matter.
The issue arose after a May opinion by City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott said that the Urban Renewal Agency could not tear down structures without “legally acquiring them through purchase, contract, eminent domain, donation by school district, donation by City of city property, etc.”
She said that while state law grants cities the authority to raze and remove structures, place liens against real property and collect those liens from the county tax collector, the Urban Renewal Agency is an autonomous body created by the city, with its own independent governing board, and therefore cannot act in the same capacity.
Her opinion also said the Code Enforcement Department, which is governed by the city, is legally allowed to perform those functions on behalf of the city.
On Tuesday, Hatchett said the city's Legal Department had ruled it was permissible to transfer the equipment to Code Enforcement but said the employee issue required following the current hiring policy, which includes advertising for the positions.
Committee and Council Member Ivan Whitfield said he was on record supporting the acquisition of the equipment but said he “was not too crazy” about the city getting involved in tearing down condemned structures, adding that businesses have invested money in equipment and are licensed and bonded to do the demolition.
“I'm opposed to getting into the demolition business,” said Lockett, who is the third member of the Health and Welfare Committee. “The current system protects us from liability and caps costs.”
He also suggested auctioning off the equipment and putting the money back into the Urban Renewal budget, an idea Hatchett rejected.
Hatchett said the city is already in the demolition business through Code Enforcement and citizens expect the council and city to deal with the issue of blight, calling it a mandate.
“Why not take advantage of the equipment and let the Code Enforcement Department take care of the administrative process,” Hatchett said.
“Whitfield agreed that the council has a “mandate” to take down blight “but let's be honest and fair and consistent. How much more money does Code Enforcement need (to reduce blight)? That's the key.”
Lockett again spoke against transferring equipment, calling it a “knee jerk reaction. We have not done a study of Code Enforcement, and I don't think it's fair to ram this down their throats.”
Jeff Gaston, who runs Code Enforcement, said the equipment would mean that more structures could be torn down once the administrative process is completed, which also reduce the waiting time since “it takes a long time to take bids out. We could be working steady.”
Earlier in the meeting, Gaston gave committee members a list of 31 houses that Code Enforcement Officers had determined to be unsafe. Eight of those were houses that had been burned. Earlier this month, the Development and Planning Committee was given files on each of those 31 structures and voted to place them on the condemnation list.
Whitfield then asked about the condemnation process, saying that it may be time to go back and look at the time limits imposed with an eye to shortening them.