Mayor Keith Gaskin, city officials and volunteers from the community group Pick It Up, Possum Town all met Wednesday afternoon to discuss the city’s illegal trash and dumping issues.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage explained some of the hurdles the city faces, and solutions ranging from volunteer-led cleanups to city-provided trash cans were highlighted.
Gaskin said he organized the meeting to help find “sustainable” solutions to control trash and illegal dumping in Columbus.
“What we’ve never been able to do until now is find a way to bring everyone together on these projects and find long-term solutions,” he said. “…But we also want to make sure that we’re not just focusing on downtown or Highway 45, but the whole city.”
Doug Kilarski, member of Pick It Up, Possum Town, suggested using volunteers to report litter and spills, as well as contacting home or business owners about problems on their property.
Turnage said while citizens contacting the city would be fine, contacting offenders is best handled by police and should not be handled by citizens or even Code Enforcement Director Sasha James.
“Some people react negatively to getting a ticket, and there has to be someone there who can stop them if they don’t do the right thing,” Turnage said. “It’s not legal for (James) to do this anyway, but I would discourage the city from sending anyone who isn’t a law enforcement officer.”
Turnage said the city is following state code, which is civil, rather than trying to detain people who litter or have dirty properties via criminal prosecution.
“We haven’t found that municipal court cases work very well because the judges don’t really know our city’s codes,” Turnage said. “They are interested in state law. It’s just easier to follow (the status code).
Turnage explained that when the city receives a complaint about dilapidated property, it follows the same section of code that governs dilapidated property. A letter is sent to the offender warning them that they are in violation, in the hope that they will clean it up. Otherwise, they receive a subpoena and appear before the council. If the council votes to clean up, Public Works proceeds with the cleanup and a tax lien for the cleanup costs is placed on the property.
“It’s expensive and it might take us three years to get our money back,” Turnage said. “We could press charges, but it’s usually not worth it.”
Rental property owners can circumvent the system by waiting for the process to start, then cutting the grass or clearing it just before the city steps in.
“So we just wasted a lot of time,” Turnage said. “… Public Works does not currently have the manpower, equipment or money to clean up these properties in a timely manner once council orders the curtailment. If we did, it would be a whole different picture.
Kilarski asked if there was a way to “channel” volunteers into the city to help.
“We have a growing cleaning capacity,” he said. “If we are going to work together to overcome the lack of money, we are free and we can bring our own tools.”
Ward 5 Councilor Stephen Jones suggested using the volunteers to reduce some of the properties in question.
“That would be nice, but if the volunteers cut it, we can’t get anything back for what our costs have been,” Turnage said.
Ward 1 Councilor Ethel Taylor Stewart said in her ward unsecured household trash was a major problem, due to people putting bags of trash out on the street to pick it up, which then went been torn apart by animals or the elements.
Chief Financial Officer James Brigham suggested the city find a way to provide cans.
“When I moved here, I was surprised that we didn’t have a bin,” he said. “People are taking out all kinds of trash, which means the trash company has to get people into the back (of the truck) to pick it up.”
He suggested that using standard cans would save the city money in the long run because trucks could then automate the process of picking up and emptying cans, saving on labor costs. ‘work.
“The labor savings would be a big trade-off (from the cost of the bins,” he said.
Jones said apartment buildings should be required to provide dumpsters for their tenants and said he had asked Turnage to craft an ordinance to that effect.
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.