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By Lois Henry
I'll be honest.
When supervisors said last year they wanted to clean things up around Kern County, I responded with an eye roll.
Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.
I mean, I totally agree that derelict properties can suck whole neighborhoods into a downward spiral of graffiti, break-ins and even gang violence.
But politicians always say they're gonna "clean up this town." And, well, look around.
I'm very glad to report that I was wrong -- this time.
The Board of Supervisors, particularly its new members, made 2013 the year someone actually did start to do something about abandoned and dilapidated properties.
And given new money and new laws the board put in place, we may see even more action in 2014.
Though he won't take credit for the new tidiness push, Supervisor David Couch has been leading the charge.
The numbers speak for themselves.
In 2012, County Code Compliance brought only seven properties to the Board of Supervisors to get the OK to demolish them. This year, it brought 26 demolition jobs to the board.
Of those, 13 were in District 4, Couch's district.
The next highest was District 1, with six cases. Then District 2, five cases, and Districts 3 and 5 each had one demolition case.
That doesn't count the number of cases that were cleanups, weed abatements or citations, which I couldn't get broken down by supervisorial district.
Those went way up, too.
In 2012 there were 1,133 complaints filed with 1,048 cases closed (meaning taken care of in some fashion).
In 2013 there were 2,190 complaints filed and -- here's the whopper -- 2,343 cases closed (some were holdovers from the previous year).
That's a big jump in closed cases.
"I heard a lot about bad properties when I was running for office," Couch said. "So we made it a priority."
It was Couch who pushed for more money and staffing to be added to Code Compliance come budget time.
After suffering cuts during the recession, Code Compliance had been limping along with just six officers, a supervisor and one clerical assistant, according to Chuck Lackey, director of Engineering, Surveying and Permit Services.
With a more flush budget approved in August, Code Compliance now has eight officers, a supervisor, two clerical staff and two support staffers.
"The clerical and support staff are crucial," Couch said. "There was a real bottleneck in the paperwork."
And this is a paperwork-intensive realm. Government can't just snap its fingers at property owners to keep up their homes, no matter how badly kept.
Code Compliance officers have to send numerous notices, have hearings, send more notices and sometimes have more hearings. If there's a slip up in the paperwork along the way, that can set things back even more.
Supervisors were able to streamline the process a tiny bit by allowing Code Compliance to do cleanups without having to get approval from the board unless costs exceed $10,000.
And the board also adopted an ordinance requiring mortgage companies to register and inspect abandoned properties. The aim is to make it easier for Code Compliance officers to reach property owners if the property becomes a nuisance.
The board has also directed Code Compliance to work more proactively with community groups trying to keep their neighborhoods from falling into disrepair.
Those groups can help in not just identifying eyesores, but also letting the county know if the problem is an absentee land owner or perhaps it's a senior citizen who just needs some help.
"We don't want to go after people with an iron fist," Couch said. "We want to assess situations and fix problems."
Code Compliance officers are also working more closely with other departments, such as the Roads Department, to be more quickly informed of illegal dumping.
"There's been a change in direction by the board," Lackey said. "They've told us to get more aggressive and given us the tools to do it."
The change has been felt, very gratefully, by folks from Taft to Bodfish.
"The community is feeling pretty good," said Sharon Viljoen, who represents a Bodfish property owners association.
Her group had been trying to get action on one property (a mobile home with multiple illegal add-ons, piled-up trash and several inoperable vehicles) on North Road for 17 years.
It was finally torn down in October.
"Yay!" Viljoen said of the collective reaction.
Neighbors felt they were being held hostage by the bad property, particularly an elderly woman who lives next door.
"She asked me to please get something done about it before she died," Viljoen recalled.
In Taft (actually Ford City), Nancy Fletcher told me much the same thing about a property on Pierce Street.
That property is getting action now, as well.
The county isn't going to tear the house down, though Fletcher said it was "red-tagged" as uninhabitable in 2009. But Code Compliance is going to take down a collection of ramshackle structures around the property that had become a magnet for criminals, and clean up the lot.
It's a start.
You can never truly be free of blight, of course.
"But you have to stay on top of it, which takes money and people," Couch said.
And political determination.
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org