Klamath Falls, Ore. - Last week there was a meeting of two groups in town, that some people never thought they’d see: All three Klamath County Commissioners sat down with the entire Klamath Falls City Council with the exception of Dan Tofell.
Also present was the the Klamath Falls City Mayor Carol Westfall, the City Manager Nathan Cherpeski, Klamath Falls Police Chief David Henslee, Public Works Director Mark Willrett, City Attorney Joanna Lyons-Antley, Support Services Director Brooke Marshal, Airport Director John Barsalou and City Engineer Scott Souders. The meeting was held at the KFPD headquarters on Shasta Way.
In the past there’s apparently been some bad blood between the two groups. But this City Council and this Board of County Commissioners have pretty much started from square one. They sat down to see what all they have in common, most importantly their shared goal of the best Klamath Falls City and County possible.
Klamath Falls Mayor Carol Westfall was the host of the event, and up first was a presentation to all in attendance by Robert Mulcare. Mr. Mulcare is the Public Safety Coordinator and he works for the Association of Counties. He’s also a reserve lieutenant with the Klamath Falls Police Department and executive director for the Basin United Soccer Club.
Mr. Mulcare gave a presentation on the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC). LPSCC is a strategic State and County Public Safety Partnership Pilot Project Launched in 15 Oregon Counties, including Klamath and Lake, which is part of Mr. Mulcare’s territory.
Thanks to three years of federal grant funding, the Association of Oregon Counties (AOC) and the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission joined together to work statewide with all public safety stakeholders in each county through the Local Public Safety Coordinating Councils.
Currently on the Klamath County LPSCC committee there are statutory members who are active: KFPD Chief David Henslee, KCSO Sheriff Chris Kaber, District Attorney EveLyn Costello, a State Court Judge, a Public Defender, a Director of Community Corrections, County Commissioner Chair Kelley Minty Morris, Director of the Department Of Juvenile Services, a Public Health director, a lay citizen and a City Councilor or the Mayor as well as a member of the Oregon State Police and the Oregon youth authority. Also representatives from Mental Health, hospitals, victim services, basically anyone who will have a hand in the criminal justice system.
The federal grant is for three years, at the end of that time, the counties decide if they want to find money to continue. LPSCC has really only been in operation for 6 months, since January 3rd 2017, so not very many citizens know about it.
Mr. Mulcare has worked on a system map for the entire criminal justice system for the County, it’s still being processed and more data and statistics are still being input.
One initiative he’s worked on is called ‘Stepping Up’ – it’s a national program to reduce the number of people with mental health issues that are currently behind bars. KBBH is a strong partner with ‘Stepping Up.’
If you’d like more information on LPSCC visit Oregoncounties.org
After the LPSCC presentation, the Council and the Commissioners got down to business.
The first item they discussed was ways to potentially collaborate on a Comprehensive Plan Study to focus on on housing blight and code enforcement throughout the City and the County. Because unfortunately it’s a problem in both areas.
City Manager Nathan Cherpeski started things off by explaining two ordinances the City of Klamath Falls recently passed.
The first Ordinance is to authorize receivership regarding what he calls, ‘Zombie Houses.’ ‘Zombie Houses’ are properties where it’s not clear who owns a property in the City, or who’s responsible, but the owner of record is not in the home and probably has not been in the home for some time. Once the house is in violation of a number of codes, then the City can ask the Court to appoint a Receiver. At that point a third party will come in, fix up the house and the property owner either pays them back or goes through the foreclosure process.
So far the City has sent only one letter out, this was to a home on Front Street in the Harbor Isles area. A home that ironically, was built by County Commissioner Donnie Boyd’s grandparents. The owner of record for this specific property hadn’t been in the house for years. The City received a letter back from the bank within three days, saying “you can’t do that, we’re entering the foreclosure process.” Which is fine said Cherpeski, they want to see forward movement, therefore for that property, the City will step back and let that process continue. They have been given 120 days to bring the property up to code. If it goes past 120 days,at $500 per day. That amount of $60-thousand dollars will be waived if they fix the roof.
The other Ordinance the City Council recently passed is related to the first, as it’s for the registration of vacant buildings. If you have an empty building, let the City know. There’s no fee for the registration, they just want to know who is responsible. It started out just for residential but they have extended it to Commercial buildings as well.
The City then amended the Ordinance by adding a requirement on boarding/maintenance. The vacant building in question is prohibited from being boarded up long term. The owner can board up the property for 90 days but that’s it. That Ordinance goes into effect on July 1st.
Mr. Cherpeski did give a nod to the County leaders as they’ve been working with both Klamath Excellence and the Klamath County Economic Development Association (KCEDA) to demolish ‘Zombie Houses.’ Together they’ve taken down three blighted homes and a fourth should be demolished soon.
Councilman Bill Adams suggested a plexiglass/clearboard type material instead of wood to block out the windows, since the material is clear and one can see inside. Whereas with wood, it’s completely covered and you can’t see in. Apparently Fannie May has started using this for any windows you can see from the street of a vacant property. That means the sides and back can be blocked with whatever.
Commissioner Donnie Boyd brought up the point however, that even if you use a clear/see-through material on a vacant property, what’s to keep the owners or anyone inside from using drapes or blinds? In essence, even clear material doesn’t solve the long term problem of a vacant property.
If after 90 days nothing happens on the boarded up property owner’s end, that’s when the banks step in and get involved. A perfect example are the two Hagen properties that have been boarded up for a long time, well over 90 days.
County Commissioner Chair Kelley Minty Morris said she completely believes in the “broken windows theory.” She referenced the ‘broken windows’ theory, which says basically “the more you let your community look like nobody cares about it… nobody’s gonna care about it.” Commissioner Minty Morris went on to say it’s a matter very important to her and she’s glad the two entities are having this conversation, also she applauds the City’s efforts in tackling this alongside the County.
Getting back to the vacant/abandoned properties, Mr. Cherpeski brought up the point of, what if someone was the owner but says ‘well I turned the keys over a long time ago and I haven’t stepped foot in there in years…’ then what does the City or County do?
The bank was still paying the taxes and the property owner of the vacant home is still collecting the mortgage insurance payments why foreclose, they’re getting paid for letting it just sit there.
For example on the Front Street property, Commissioner Boyd said “there’s three banks involved, somebody’s gonna take a huge loss on that. They leave it on their
balance sheet for whatever’s owed against it, it looks a lot better to them. So there’s no question, you have to do something to force them to… their hand… cause right now, a bad debt on their balance sheet looks better than taking a $500-thousand dollar hit or a $200-thousand dollar hit or whatever… because their stockholders are gonna say ‘whoa, we don’t like this.’”
Commissioner Boyd said he’d very much like to review these two City Council Ordinances in more detail.
Councilman Matt Dodson says he has been personally involved with helping to clean up properties for the past 18 months or so. Luckily he hasn’t had much negative feedback, mostly positive. Dodson believes people do want to do something with these properties but they just “need to be poked” to get them motivated.
Commissioner Boyd agreed and said he and the Commissioners talk about it a lot. He’s also noticed a big increase in Waste Management bringing in more things like old mattresses and things that you’d find in/around an abandoned property. It’s his belief that word is finally getting around that people need to clean up their properties before they incur some major fines.
Councilman Adams then stated that he’s seen an increase in dead cars being picked up as well, another good sign that residents are starting to police themselves regarding property clean up.
Commissioner Derrick DeGroot said that for him “making new codes when you’re not enforcing the ones you have doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So step one, enforce what you have on the books and what kind of impact does that make. Then if that’s not far enough, then you can look to go to the next step. But I think just enforcing the codes that we have had sitting around, I mean… makes a lot more sense tha ‘let’s just make more laws we’re not gonna enforce.’”
Something we all learned is that between the City and the County we have a total of three code enforcement officers. One in County and two in City.
Due to the County budget, Commissioner Body was saying that right now they can only afford one Code Enforcement Officer. He then went on to say the Code Rangers group that the County has assembled actually is “getting tons of stuff.”
The Code Rangers are a group made up of mostly volunteers that will drive around the County and look for things that are out of code. Fence heights, old furniture on lawns, that type of thing. They’ll take a picture of the offense (from the car, they do not approach the property), document by saying what the issue is with each situation and send it to the Board of County Commissioner (BOCC) staff. The BOCC staff then in turn will input it into the system, which goes to the Code Enforcement officer and then he will follow up with it.
The property owner and residents will then get a letter stating they have 21 days to correct the offense. If no change is made in those three weeks, it’s a fine of $720. If a City property with a code issue comes into the County, they will forward it to the City.
The County offense submission process via the Code Rangers, is entirely anonymous. Anyone can submit something they see in the County that needs to be fixed but they don’t have to give their personal information.
Mr. Cherpeski said the City has a place on their website when one can actually take a picture of an offense, and upload it onto the city’s site. The City’s site submission process however is not anonymous, at least not yet. Here’s a link to report something, but again with this you do have to give your personal information: https://www.klamathfalls.city/i-want-to/report/code-enforcement-complaint.
Mr. Cherpeski also said the City of Klamath Falls is considering a phone number where citizens can call for City based questions as well as report things via uploading a photo of like potholes or power outages using a smartphone. It’d be 3-1-1 type number that a lot of cities already have.
The County say they also will have a website based submission at some point.
David Henslee the KFPD Chief of Police talked about their “fix-a-ticket” program which is very similar to the above. At last report there were 13 tickets issued and 11 complied.
Commissioner Boyd reminded everyone that there is a property auction coming up soon, at the end of June.
Overall, it was a very beneficial meeting. The City Council and the County Commissioners realized how much they have in common as far as improving the Basin. The also agreed that the next step for the whole group is to get together and come up with a joint Comprehensive Plan Study.