The most recent National Citizens Survey, which came out in January, shows only 52 percent of the city's residents rating code enforcement as "good or excellent" — though most respondents also noted that they had not personally observed any code violation.
Councilwoman Karen Holman, who sits on the Finance Committee, shares these concerns. While reviewing the proposed city budget on May 9, Holman recommended funding another code-enforcement position, which would bring the size of the team to four officers. This could mean relying more on fines and fees to offset the costs of the worker, she said.
The idea of further bolstering the code-enforcement program was also floated by Planning Director Hillary Gitelman but did not get the support of City Manager James Keene, whose proposed budget the committee is now reviewing. After Holman's two committee colleagues, Chairman Eric Filseth and Adrian Fine, rejected her recommendation, she voted against the department's budget (the committee's fourth member, Greg Tanaka, was absent).
"It is one of the largest things that people complain about in the public," Holman said of code enforcement.
Gitelman, whose department includes 42.5 full-time-equivalent positions, called code enforcement a "resources-constrained function."
"You can do as much code enforcement as you have people to do it," Gitelman said. "And the more people you have, the more proactive we can be."
The city's current system is based on complaints, she said — the officers respond when they are notified of a possible violation. Having more code-enforcement officers would make it possible for the city to be "more proactive and go out looking for violations, particularly when it comes to conditions of approval (for development) and things like that."
The budget document shows that in at least one area, the city did in fact ratchet up its enforcement this past year. After hiring a new officer in 2015, the city began to enforce its 2010 ban on gas-powered leaf blowers in residential areas. In 2016, the department investigated about 400 complaints and issued about 250 notices and seven citations, according to the budget. (In the first half of 2015, by contrast, the city issued no warnings or citations.)
The budget states that one of the department's initiatives in the coming year will be to continue to improve the code-enforcement program, track officer caseloads and response times and increase "the presence and awareness of code enforcement in the community."
Even without any budget increases, the city's code-enforcement program is being examined by the office of City Auditor Harriet Richardson. In reviewing the budget for Richardson's office, the Finance Committee voted to add $20,000 for survey work relating to code-enforcement — an expenditure proposed by Holman.
Richardson said she has seen significant community interest in the upcoming audit, with residents coming to her office to talk about it. She indicated the new survey could help clarify residents' concerns about the topic.
"We don't really know what it is that residents think is not good about code enforcement," Richardson said.
Improving the code-enforcement program and completing the Comprehensive Plan update are just two goals for what promises to be another busy year in the planning department. The list of initiatives on the department's agenda includes advancing entitlements for more than 200 housing units; implementing four bicycle boulevard projects; revising the zoning code; planning for Caltrain grade separations; and creating an implementation plan for paid parking downtown.
But though the department's work receives the lion's share of the City Council's attention, its staff account for a tiny fraction of the city's workforce.
The Department of Planning and Community Department's proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, is actually seeing a 3.6 percent dip from the current fiscal year, to $8.5 million.
Meanwhile, the overall city budget proposed by Keene is set to go up by 3.1 percent.
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