Mayor Keith Gaskin, city officials and volunteers from the Pick It Up, Possum Town community group all came together Wednesday afternoon to discuss the city’s litter and illegal dumping issues.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage explained some of the obstacles the city has to contend with, and solutions ranging from volunteer-led cleanup to city-provided garbage cans were highlighted.
Gaskin said he organized the meeting to facilitate coming up with “sustainable” solutions to control litter and illegal dumping in Columbus.
“What we’ve never been able to do thus far is find a way to bring everybody together on these projects and find long-term solutions,” he said. “… But we also want to make sure that we’re not focusing on just Downtown or Highway 45, but working on the entire city.”
Doug Kilarski, a member of Pick It Up, Possum Town, suggested using volunteers to report instances of littering and dumping, as well as contacting home or business owners about problems on their property.
Turnage said that while citizens contacting the city would be fine, actually contacting offenders is best handled by the police and shouldn’t be handled by either citizens or even by Director of Code Enforcement Sasha James.
“Some people react negatively to getting a ticket, and there needs to be somebody who can arrest them if they don’t act right,” Turnage said. “It’s not legal for (James) to do that anyway, but I would discourage the city from sending someone who’s not a law enforcement officer.”
Turnage said the city follows the state code, which is civil, rather than attempting to hold people who litter or who have trashy properties via criminal prosecution.
“We haven’t found prosecuting in municipal court works very well, because the judges aren’t really familiar with our city codes,” Turnage said. “They’re interested in state law. It’s just easier to follow (the state code).”
Turnage explained that when the city receives a complaint about trashy property, it follows the same code section that governs dilapidated property. A letter is sent to the offender warning them they are in violation, in the hopes they will clean it up. If not, they are served a summons and go before the council. If the council votes to remediate, Public Works cleans it up and a tax lien for the cleanup cost is placed on the property.
“It’s expensive and it might take three years for us to get our money back,” Turnage said. “We could sue, but it’s usually not worth it.”
Owners of rental properties can get around the system by waiting for the process to start and then cutting the grass or cleaning it up right before the city takes action.
“Then we’ve just wasted a lot of time,” Turnage said. “… Public Works right now does not have the manpower, equipment or money to timely clean these properties up once the council orders abatement. If we did, then it would be a whole different picture.”
Kilarski asked if there was a way to “funnel” volunteers to the city to help out.
“We have a growing capacity to clean,” he said. “If we’re going to work together to alleviate the shortage of money, we’re free and we can bring our own tools.”
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones suggested using the volunteers to abate some of the properties in question.
“That would be fine, but if volunteers cut it we can’t recover anything for what our costs were,” Turnage said.
Ward 1 Councilwoman 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 for collection that then got torn open by animals or the elements.
Chief Financial Officer James Brigham suggested the city find a way to provide cans.
“It was surprising to me when I moved here that we didn’t get a garbage can,” he said. “People bring out all sorts of trash cans, and that means the trash company has to have people ride on the back (of the truck) to pick them up.”
He suggested using standard cans would save the city money in the long run because trucks could then automate the process of picking up and emptying the cans, therefore saving on manpower costs.
“The savings of the labor would be a big trade-off (of the cost of the garbage containers,” he said.
Jones said that apartment buildings should be required to supply dumpsters for their tenants, and said that he had asked Turnage to develop an ordinance to that effect.
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.