An innovative new program will now serve to address quality of life issues in the City of Newark.
The initiative, introduced last week by North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., will increase code enforcement manpower in the city while simultaneously training council aides to assist with code enforcement issues.
Ramos said his office receives approximately 20 quality of life complaints each month regarding abandoned and neglected properties, illegal dumping, property conversions, overgrown grass and graffiti.
“These issues are negatively impacting the quality of life in our communities," Ramos said. “One of the biggest complaints we get from residents are code enforcement issues. We get a host of complaints about issues that interface with the city’s code enforcement teams.”
The need for more code enforcement officers to deal with quality of life complaints has been raised at many city council meetings, Ramos said.
“As a result of budget cuts over the years, our code enforcement staff has been depleted,” Ramos said, noting the city once had a code enforcement team made up of 60 officers. “At the same time, quality of life complaints have been increasing. The five code enforcement officers who were part of the mayor's budget were a step in the right direction, but did not fully address the need to staff up to meet the demands of our residents.”
Ramos has identified funding for an additional 10 code enforcement officers along with five that were added to the city’s 2017 adopted budget, with the amended budget now including funding for about 20 code enforcement officers.
“The mayor looked at five additional code enforcement officers,” Ramos said. “We took those five and then identified funding for an additional 10 positions.”
The additional hires will not increase the overall budget, Ramos said.
In addition, Ramos is working to have city council aides deputized and trained to assist with code enforcement issues.
"Our aides area already in the wards assisting residents with these types of complaints," Ramos said. "A similar pilot program has been successfully established in the Newark Downtown District. It's time we expand it to the rest of the city. If they can get trained and certified to take complaints, they can help in building the case and doing a lot of the work the code enforcers do. We’ll get them trained and certified and they will essentially be deputized.”
The city clerk's office is currently working on ratifying the process of deputizing council aides with the Township of Irvington, who has a similar program in place.
Byron Clark, a resident of the North Ward's Forest Hill neighborhood, Forest Hill Community Association member and director of external relations for the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau, has referred many code enforcement issues to Ramos' office.
"Code enforcement is critical to maintaining neighborhoods," Clark said. "Code enforcement officers force property owners to be held accountable. For me, it's a compliance issue."
Clark said many of the issues are far more serious than simply cosmetic.
"This is not just maintenance and upkeep and 'Better Homes and Gardens'," he said. "This is also about safety."
Some of the more serious issues include illegal conversions of residences that can lead to overcrowding.
"Overcrowded conditions plague parts of our city," Clark said. "When you have a city that's growing in development and population, code enforcement is critical. Without proper code enforcement, neighborhoods like this could and will diminish over time."
Clark cited city slumlords as chronic code violators who prey on the city's most disadvantaged tenants, as well as calling out banks who allow foreclosed properties to fall into disrepair.
"We have banks that are holding onto these properties and they are starting to fall apart," he said. "Our only weapon against these banks is code enforcement."
Although Newark needs more than 20 code enforcement officers, Ramos said the increase in manpower is a solid start.
“This is a definite step in the right direction,” Ramos said.