CHICOPEE – Officials are examining a pilot program that would restructure the way code violations are handled, after years of trying to crack down on negligent property owners.
Mayor John L. Vieau and City Council President Frank N. Laflamme said they are working to develop a part-time code enforcement officer’s position and trying other methods to force homeowners to clean up their properties.
“The entire process needs to be revamped,” Vieau said.
For more than a year, City Councilor William Courchesne has been pushing to have a separate code enforcement officer hired to oversee all violations. Vieau rejected the proposal, which had been passed unanimously by the City Council in March 2022, saying he doesn’t believe a general code officer would have the legal right to hand out tickets that would stand up in Housing Court.
The City Council is now debating a proposal to place a non-binding question on the November ballot to ask voters if they want the city to create a general code enforcement officer position. The idea is now in committee, where it will be researched and debated.
“There’s no reason to put it on the ballot,” Vieau said. He and his staff first need to figure out how the position should work.
Now, the health and building departments each have inspectors who enforce safety, building and sanitary codes. Police can also give out tickets if they encounter a violation, Vieau said.
In this year’s budget, Vieau said he added another building inspector to create a position that will focus on multi-family homes. The health director said she has enough staff to conduct required inspections and respond to complaints.
The next step: Determine what authority a code enforcement officer would have — and what department they would work under, the mayor said.
“I think it will be best to pilot it for six months to a year. I want a clean city,” Vieau said.
The law department’s Daniel Garvey has real estate experience, so he agreed to oversee issues with Housing Court to streamline the process. Vieau said he is considering having the code enforcement officer report to Garvey.
One of the problems the city faces is that repeat offenders will clean up their property temporarily, as they are being taken to court for failure to pay fines or correct violations. A judge will dismiss the complaint, only for the property owner to repeat the violations, triggering the cycle to start again.
If a judge does approve an order to clean up a property, the city can hire someone to do the work and place a lien on the home to try to recoup the cost.
Enforcement is difficult. The city cannot go onto private property without a judge’s order. Violations have to be in plain sight. In one case, a repeat offender who has been known to collect junk and burn mattresses on his property put up a fence after receiving multiple fines, Vieau said.
The city is looking at other ways to crack down on code violations, including installing a computer software program to better track code violations and ensure all relevant departments receive information so they do not duplicate efforts.
It created an account using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that helps people, mainly in single or two-family homes, who are having difficulty, Vieau said.
“Some people can’t take care of their properties,” he said.
People can apply to the fund, which is run through the Community Development Department, for the money to do things such as replace a roof.
The loan is then treated like a property lien and doesn’t have to be paid back until they or their heirs sell the home. There is also a provision that allows people to pay it back once they are in a better situation, Vieau said. “We try to find ways to help people who may need it,” he said.