PINE BLUFF -- The Pine Bluff City Council is expected to consider two resolutions by Mayor Shirley Washington at its meeting Monday night aimed at changing how the city handles urban renewal efforts.
If approved, the resolutions would transfer heavy equipment purchased by the Urban Renewal Agency and two employees of the agency to the city's Code Enforcement Department. It also would create a new position within that department to supervise nuisance abatement activities.
The resolutions came about after Maurice Taggart, director of the Urban Renewal Agency, requested a formal opinion from City Attorney Althea Scott regarding the agency's ability to raze and remove structures within the city. At the heart of the issue is whether the agency is required to acquire ownership of the properties before it razes those properties.
Scott issued her formal opinion May 20, saying that confusion had been created over the division of demolition duties between the Code Enforcement Department and the Urban Renewal Agency. The opinion also said the Urban Renewal Agency had failed to follow the law when it came to razing dilapidated structures.
Scott's opinion noted that 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 opinion also said the Code Enforcement Department, a department governed by the city, is legally allowed to perform those functions on behalf of the city.
The city attorney's opinion also said 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. Instead, the opinion said, the Urban Renewal Agency must legally acquire property through "purchase, contract, eminent domain, donation by school district, donation by City of city property, etc."
Upon receiving the opinion, Taggart ordered the Urban Renewal Agency to suspend nuisance abatement activities until the matter could be resolved.
Pine Bluff Alderman Ivan Whitfield has called for an investigation into the agency, saying it improperly spent funds it was given by the city to tear down condemned houses. Whitfield also said work done by the Urban Renewal Agency is a duplication of work the city's own Code Enforcement Department is supposed to do.
Whitfield said transferring the capacity to perform nuisance abatement to the Code Enforcement Department is not the solution. Instead, he said, it should be done through a bidding process.
"If I was against Urban Renewal tearing down homes, I'll be against the city," he said. "We have a bidding process that needs to be carried out."
That process, Whitfield said, is what keeps area contractors in business and provides jobs to residents.
"A lot of these people are ex-offenders, they've been in prison, and they can get jobs with these contractors," Whitfield said. "They can get a second chance to become productive citizens, but that's a chance they won't get if we, as a city, put these contractors out of business."
Chris Warrior, owner of Warrior Environmental demolition company, said he has relied heavily on business from the city in the past.
"The city is my main source of income," Warrior said. "We started our business because of the city and the need they had years ago, and they've left us hanging for the last five or six years."
The Code Enforcement Department's area of operation is citywide, and its duties encompass nuisance abatement; enforcement of city codes relating to abandoned cars, trash, limbs, fallen trees, grass and weeds; and even disputes between landlords and tenants that involve unsafe or unsanitary living conditions.
The department can issue citations for infractions and is empowered to raze nuisance structures after going through a process that, according to Jeff Gaston, code enforcement director, can take up to four or five months. That includes the time it takes to solicit bids from independent contractors because the department currently does not have the capacity to perform nuisance abatement in-house.
The Urban Renewal Agency, which operates in three areas that are designated as urban renewal zones, can raze a nuisance structure in approximately 90 days, Taggart said.
He said that while he disagreed with the opinion issued by Scott, he felt bound to abide by the opinion until the matter can be resolved, and directed an immediate halt to the demolitions the agency had on its schedule.
"We were going back and forth about which statute governed and which statute didn't govern, and I said the language is pretty clear in terms of our ability to raze structures without acquisition," Taggart said. "She disagreed. Now, you can give two lawyers the same facts, read the same law, and they can come to different conclusions. But she is the city attorney, and I feel like we need to respect that and abide by her opinion until I can meet with my full board and see where they want to go from here."
On a recent tour of areas that fall within the city's urban renewal zones, Taggart pointed out numerous structures that have been tagged for demolition -- some for years -- only to be bound up in bureaucratic red tape.
"If you'll look at some of these houses, these are not livable structures," Taggart said. "These are burnouts. There's nothing left to rehabilitate. Yet they sit here, nothing but eyesores and havens for criminal activity."
Jimmy Dill, a local attorney who chairs the board that oversees Urban Renewal Agency activities, agreed that the problem is pervasive and long-standing.
"This is the result of years of neglect," he said. "If we don't have the authority to demolish these houses, then somebody needs to figure out who does, and they need to do it."
Taggart said his mission is to address blight and work to renovate and improve those areas his agency is responsible for maintaining. To that end, he said, the Urban Renewal Agency acquired some property a block off of Main Street that is to be renovated and repurposed as part of the Re-Live Downtown Plan.
"I'm not all about demolitions," he said. "If the city turns that part over to code enforcement, that will enable me to concentrate more on rebuilding downtown. But as long as I am doing demolitions, my understanding is that I'm to do it in a way that provides the best return on the taxpayers' investment.
"It's not the city's responsibility to make work for private contractors."
Washington said she believes the resolutions she plans to introduce Monday are a way to break through the impasse in a way that can satisfy all of the legal requirements and allow the city to operate more efficiently.
"It will give code enforcement the power to do what they've always done, but they'll now have the capacity to do it in house," Washington said. "We hit a roadblock, and we have to find a way around it so we can move forward."
Alderman Win Trafford said he is inclined to support the legislation.
"I believe this is a good solution, either for the long term or in the interim as things get figured out over time, for us to continue with the removal of the blight," Trafford said. "That's the whole purpose for all of this.
"It's not for us to provide jobs to whoever. This is us trying to best use our taxpayers' money to remove as much of this blight as possible and keep the city moving forward and in the right direction."
State Desk on 06/30/2019
Print Headline: Pine Bluff aims to solve matters on blight