When a neighbor’s property is overflowing with garbage, has leaking sewage or is filled with junk cars, many call Clallam County code enforcement, expecting results.
Barb McFall, the county’s only code enforcement officer, already has received more than 100 complaints this year and has a two-year backlog to address.
Including the backlog, McFall estimated that she is handling more than 200 cases. In 2015, she finished 72 of 163 cases; in 2016, she finished 83 of 174 cases; and this year she has finished 28 of 104 cases, as of June 13.
“That means a lot of stuff that is really important to that homeowner doesn’t make my priority list,” said McFall, a former sergeant with the Port Angeles Police Department. “You’re really unhappy, but you’re not going to make my list anytime soon.”
McFall said that as she sets her priorities, she first looks at whether there is a health or safety risk at a property. Then she looks at whether a case is actually solvable.
Much of the time she looks for voluntary compliance. Code violations are civil matters and it’s easier to keep properties clean if the property owner is helping in the cleanup, she said.
“It’s difficult to force somebody to do something they don’t want to do,” she said. “A lot of people recognize they have a problem … and just don’t know what to do.”
This year Clallam County commissioners set aside $30,000 to help McFall get properties cleaned up.
For people who need and want help, she has been able to help pay for garbage removal, but added she reserves those funds for people who show initiative.
Those funds also are only used when there would be a clear benefit to the entire neighborhood, not just the homeowner, she said.
McFall likes to handle the “easy” cases, such as people who need junk car affidavits, in spurts every couple of weeks or so.
A volunteer also helps, she said, though he focuses only on cases where people are asking for help with their own property.
“We’ve actually made some headway,” she said.
But there are some properties in the county McFall said are so bad she can’t even touch them. The most difficult cases typically include mental health issues, drug use issues or both, she said.
“Financial issues we can usually help and work around,” she said. “If it’s mental health or drug use, those are really hard things to do.
“Some of them are just complicated and you have to just do a few at a time … and make sure people are taken care of.”
McFall can issue tickets for fines and try to take people to court if they refuse to comply, but has found that doesn’t always work.
“If I go and write you a ticket and you don’t pay it, I’ll send you to collections,” she said. “To some people that’s a big deal. But to other people it isn’t.”
McFall said she works as much as she can with others in the county — including Environmental Health — to solve issues, which has been putting a dent in her caseload.
But she still spends about half of her time taking calls or listening to messages, time McFall said she would rather spend in the field dealing with cases. When she’s in the field, she can’t answer the phone and take complaints.
“Our customer service suffers terribly,” she said. “If I’m not in the office, it just goes to voice mail.”
McFall believes the county needs to hire either another code enforcement officer, an administrative assistant to handle office duties or both positions for code enforcement to make progress on the case load.
Mary Ellen Winborn, director of the county’s Department of Community Development, said she plans to make a request to the Board of County Commissioners in about a month for funding.
“We’re going to go again in the next month and ask for another officer or at bare minimum an admin person,” she said. “We’re going to keep trying.”
To hire both positions, she said it would cost the county between $135,000 and $140,000, which would include benefits and a uniform allowance.
County Commissioner Mark Ozias said code enforcement is an issue all the commissioners are working on and is one of the most common issues he hears about.
“It would be fair to say all three commissioners understand the challenges of code enforcement and that for many residents it’s their biggest frustration with county government,” he said. “I think all three of us will look for better ways (to address code enforcement).”
He said what the county was able to do this year was provide that $30,000 to help McFall, which is money she hasn’t had in the past.
“I believe the commissioners will be working during the upcoming budgeting cycle to understand what we can do to provide more resources to code enforcement,” Ozias said. “There is definitely more than one code enforcement officer is able to handle in a timely fashion.”