Group gathering signatures for repeal of Jonesboro property maintenance code

by Michael Wilkey ([email protected]) 288 views 

Mark Pillow, an official with a group seeking to repeal a recently approved Jonesboro property maintenance code, said Monday an attempt to repeal the code is gathering steam.

“The people are passionate, motivated and we have the momentum,” Pillow said Monday.

The group, Repeal Property Code 105-2, is seeking 2,432 signatures on a petition to call for a May 3 special election on the issue. The group began gathering signatures Saturday (Jan. 23), picking up 400 in just a few hours, Pillow said.

The issue has been debated for the past year or so in Jonesboro, with supporters and opponents each making their case. Supporters have said the code, which was adopted from the International Property Maintenance Code, will provide teeth in going after dilapidated homes in Jonesboro. Opponents have said the code’s provisions are suspect and would violate the 4th Amendment’s prohibition against illegal searches.

A citizens committee voted 6-3 last year to send the code to the Jonesboro City Council for review. The council approved the code in its first two readings in late November-early December, setting up the third reading on Dec. 15.

Perrin said Monday the city has demolished around 50 homes a year and has worked on a plan to rehabilitate homes around town. The plan would use $500,000 in federal community development block grant funding to repair homes, while a group, Build Up Jonesboro (made up of local churches) have worked on the issue, Perrin said.

Pillow said his group is against the code and is seeking to repeal and replace it with something less intrusive.

“We need a code. But this code was designed as a weapon, not as a tool,” Pillow said.

In an announcement last week, the group ripped the code.

“This is an extraordinary act that is being undertaken because our elected officials refused to listen to their constituents and voted this law into effect even as we were all celebrating the holidays,” the group said in a statement. “Our goal as a group is to educate each member of the public about the intrusion their elected officials want into their personal dwellings and make them aware of the potential fines they will face even for the most minor infractions.”

The repeal plan has drawn support from local landlord associations, who have noted the code will add costs to doing business, Pillow said. The increased costs, Pillow said, are often passed onto renters.

“Blue collar families will have to move elsewhere,” Pillow said, under the new code. “Houses will be torn down with better multi-family housing in its place, which will help the city’s financial bottom line.”

Pillow said opponents had felt better last year when there was momentum for a vote on the issue. However, Pillow said a sales tax vote last year on both economic development and street improvements, which failed by wide margins, likely soured any attempt for a special election called by the council.

Perrin countered that setting a repeal vote last year was only discussed “once or twice” during council meetings and that council members made a decision to vote on the issue themselves, after the issue was vetted by several committees.

Pillow said his group felt disenfranchised by the actions of the council and Perrin.

“We will turn it in February 10 and we should have no problem getting the signatures,” Pillow said, noting the group plans to get about 5,000 signatures.

The group also plans to talk to local church and civic groups in the next several weeks to make their case.

Teresa Beck, who chaired the citizens committee, said Monday the issue was vetted fully by several committees before it even went to the council.

“It is disappointing to me,” Beck noted, saying several of the opponents of the code did not attend meetings on the issue.

Beck said the code seeks to go after blighted areas, help elderly landowners and deal with an absentee landlord problem. The issue is not a political one, Beck said.

“I am a conservative at heart and this code promotes personal responsibility,” Beck said.

The issue has been debated for at least a decade, Beck said, noting a 2007 study by the city showed that 85% of rental properties in Jonesboro needed work then. However, no recommendation was done on the issue, Beck said. Beck said an idea of rental inspections has also drawn opposition by landlord groups.

As for the 4th Amendment issue, Beck said the idea of a code enforcement officer knocking down doors to gain entry is a “myth.”

“Every code we have has protections,” Beck said of the right of entry.

Beck also said the council amended the code in December to add protections, including having a code enforcement officer receive verbal and written permission before entering a home. Beck said the new code is complaint driven, removing the possibility of code enforcement officers abusing their authority.

“(With code enforcement) driving around looking for things, a lot of it has been kicked out of court,” Beck said of citations.

Beck also agreed with Pillow on the need for a code, citing a boarded up home at the corner of Wood Street and Parker Road as an example.

“It was boarded up and vagrants lived in it,” Beck said. “It is on the main thoroughfare and was awful.”

Craighead County Clerk Kade Holliday said Monday his office has not received paperwork on the repeal issue.

As for an election cost, Holliday estimated it would cost between $15,000 and $20,000. Holliday said a question as to who will pay for the election – the city or the group – would likely be determined by how the filing is worded.