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Changes in store for controversial city program

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On any given day, Joe Pizzo can see drug dealers and prostitutes hanging out on Lyell Avenue near his bar, Smokin Joe's. "We call it 'Lyell vision,'" laughs Pizzo mirthlessly. At 52, Pizzo, a Rochester native, has seen it all. "There are so many problems," he says. "How do you address all these problems?"

Pizzo commends his area's Neighborhood Empowerment Team --- one part neighborhood advocate, one part law enforcement --- for undertaking what he says is a thankless job. "They go knocking on doors and say: 'We know you've got drugs in here. We've gotten numerous complaints that this is a drug house, and we suggest you shut down and move.' Sometimes they don't care. Sometimes they get scared and go across the street."

His attitude toward NET is gentle, even pitying. "NET isn't supposed to stop prostitution. NET is supposed to try to keep people's [properties] up to code."

Pizzo didn't always feel so kindly toward NET. In fact, several years ago, he almost ran inspectors out of his bar for trying to fine him for hanging up too many neon signs. Under city codes, signs can cover no more than 25 percent of a store window. Pizzo said he pointed out that his signs didn't block more than the allotted amount when lumped together. He expected an outburst from the inspector. Instead, the man mulled a minute and said, "You're right."

"He was reasonable," Pizzo says.

In some ways, Pizzo's experience with NET exemplifies what former Mayor Bill Johnson hoped to accomplish when he introduced the program almost a decade ago. NET staff were meant to forge links with residents, storeowners, and neighborhood associations in individual sections of the city. The Johnson administration hoped to empower residents to fix their neighborhoods from within. The city set up six Rochester NET offices, whose staff include code enforcement officials, police officers, and an administrator.

Ultimately, the city hoped that each NET satellite would work to proactively reduce problems such as property abandonment and blight before they spiraled out of control. "NET was sold to the public as a silver bullet," recalls Mitch Rowe, a former NET administrator.

As the years have passed, however, the program began to buckle under the weight of its own hefty endeavor. "They were going to be the mini City Hall in the neighborhood," says Joan Roby-Davison, executive director of the 14621 neighborhood organization. But it was soon clear that the goal was too ambitious. "We weren't set up to fail, but there was an expectation that we were never going to meet," says Mitch Rowe.

NET also became increasingly controversial, with people charging that some NET staff had grown aggressive, even hostile, toward the constituents they were meant to serve. People in situations similar to Pizzo's complained that inspectors and enforcement officers often bullied them into compliance. Roby-Davison said she's seen such adversarial encounters firsthand.

"There's sometimes really aggressive enforcement," she says. "And sometimes we really like aggressive enforcement --- but sometimes it's odd. I keep talking to people who keep getting ticketed for things that make no sense whatsoever." For example, NET staff can issue citations for just about any infraction that mars the urban landscape: garbage left out too long, rusty gutters, unkempt lawns. The problem, says Roby-Davison, is that some residents get fined for failing to tidy up their yard, while their neighbor gets off scot-free.

While some remain loyal to NET, others have come to despise the program, says former City Council member Tim Mains. "I heard horror stories," he says. "What we wanted it to accomplish, the reason that we created it in the first place, is that it would be an extension of Neighbors Building Neighborhoods," a city program that unites residents, businesses, schools, and religious groups to address each city sector's unique needs. "Instead," says Mains, "in some places, I think people feel like it's more like the Neighborhood Enforcement Team, not the Neighborhood Empowerment Team."

Prompted by numerous complaints, Mains asked that the city analyze the program. The result is a report by the Center for Governmental Research, a draft copy of which City Newspaper recently received. The program's difficulties, CGR concluded, include vague goals, weak data analysis, and inconsistent enforcement. New Deputy Mayor Patricia Malgieri says city officials will meet sometime this week to determine the next step.

CGR says the city has four options: keep the current NET structure, keep it but move inspection and enforcement back to City Hall, have NET report to a city department rather than the mayor, or dismantle NET altogether.

Malgieri --- who is the former head of CGR --- says she believes the new administration will try to act quickly on the report's recommendations. "I know what the issues are, and I know how important it is that we make NET an important part of our agenda going forward," she says. But, she stresses, the administration has no plans to dissolve NET. Proposals, she says, "may involve changes in the way NET is designed or implemented, but that has yet to be determined."

While the mayor can move unilaterally on many of those changes, City Council President Lois Giess says Council members may have to approve specific items within the legislation. She says she also thinks Council will take a serious look at NET when it, along with all city programs, comes up for budget review in late spring. NET costs the city about $8 million a year; but, even if the program were restructured, most of its costs would remain. The city would still have to conduct inspections and enforce codes, and that has been the bulk of NET's work.

Although NET has fallen into disfavor in recent years, for every horror story, there seems to be an equally compelling success story --- a realization that prompted CGR to call its research "a study of contrasts."

Charlotte Thomas, owner of Sensuous Satiables and president of the Thurston Brooks Merchants Association, raves about her NET office, noting that NET representatives attend every merchants meeting. NET staff even helped her hang decorations while conducting a routine inspection recently, she says.

Similarly, 19th Ward Community Association office manager Marian Boutet says NET officials keep a close watch on her neighborhood, which increases residents' sense of belonging and security. "They know the area, they know who the players are, they know who the gangs are," she says. "They know the neighborhood and who's supposed to be here and not."

Those who dislike NET are too busy focusing on the negatives, she says: "People tend to remember what didn't work right. That's definitely a universal thing. People are fast to criticize and slow to praise. I don't think that's any different from NET than any other entity."

Roby-Davison, while less enthusiastic about NET in practice, remains committed to the concept of NET as a group of mini-City Halls. "It's really a dilemma for me," she says, "because I was one of the initial supporters of NET." Roby-Davison would like to see NET staff take a more proactive approach to solving problems, such as property abandonment and blight.

CGR's research indicates that NET was highly regarded during its formative years. "Most respondents believe that NET had the biggest impact in its first two or three years."

"Because the model of locating city staff in neighborhoods was new, and the need for this type of city/community collaborative effort was so great, there were many opportunities to make positive changes," says the report.

Some of the shift in attitude may be due to what the program has come to symbolize. "NET is a microcosm of all the pressures and challenges facing city government," CGR wrote, noting that at least part of the reason NET has become all things to all people is due to its amorphous mission statement:

"NET was created to support safe, clean, strong, viable, and attractive neighborhoods by locating city code inspection and enforcement and neighborhood policing services in neighborhoods so that city staff and residents could work as a team to improve the quality of life by reducing urban blight, nuisance and criminal activities."

But that statement says little about how to measure such reductions. And the city's statistics have typically measured processes, not outcomes, CGR staff wrote: "It is far easier to measure the number of tickets issued, abandoned cars towed, properties boarded, than it is to measure whether or not these actions have cumulatively made a difference in the quality of life, when there are so many other variables that also affect the quality of life."

What is clear, though, is that almost all the problems facing the city when NET began remain today. "Despite the many successes of NET over the years, that need is just as great at the end of 2005 as it was when NET started in 1997," reported CGR staff. The report recommends that the city "create a process to develop a realistic set of expectations about what services the city can provide to support safe, clean, strong, viable, attractive neighborhoods."

NET's real decline probably began in 2002, when officials put code inspectors in charge of enforcement. The same office became responsible for both citing violations and mandating compliance. Although the new system seemed more efficient, CGR concluded that integrating the two functions eliminated vital checks and balances between the two departments.

Many complaints, such as those received by Mains' office, arose following that decision, with people alleging that NET officers were using aggressive tactics to force compliance. More recently, several business owners have harshly criticized officials for beefing up a Certificate of Use policy requiring many small business owners to register with the city. Business owners pay a $100 licensing fee and undergo background checks. The city's goal was make it easier to deal with problem businesses, such as those doubling as drug fronts. As with many code-related activities, the job of administering C of U fell upon NET administrators.

To some extent, many small-business owners' criticism of the C of U reflects how easy it is to scapegoat NET staff for an unpopular city policy. But Bill Nielsen, owner of Chester Cab Pizza on Park Avenue and Sticky Lips BBQ on Culver Road, says he is angered both by the new C of U policy and by NET staff, who, he says, have harassed and even threatened noncompliant owners.

For example, business owners who refuse to pay the $100 registration fee are ticketed $300, an amount that jumps to $600 after seven days. "I mean, even a parking ticket you've got 30 days [to pay]," says Nielsen. "You feel like a criminal."

Nielsen grew so irate that he eventually posted this eyebrow-raising sign on the front of Sticky Lips: "Rochester's NET office uses similar laws and tactics as Nazi Germany. The NET must be stopped." ("I never called them Nazi Germans," says Nielsen. "I just said they used similar laws and tactics.")

However, other business owners --- typically those in more depressed areas --- defend both the C of U and NET. "The C of U is in place to help prevent businesses from being just fly-by-night," says Charlotte Thomas of Sensuous Satiables, noting that few things hurt business more than nearby illegal activity or violence. Those interviewed for this article echoed Thomas, noting that perhaps businesses on Park and Monroe Avenues don't face the same problems as their less affluent neighbors. "I talked to a restaurant owner who said, yeah, $100 was a lot of money, but that business down the street was a lot of money, too," says Roby-Davison.

While she supports the C of U policy, Roby-Davison remains less convinced about NET staff's enforcement tactics. Her main concern is that multiple tickets will eventually prompt landlords to abandon their properties and business owners to close shop. Nielsen agrees. "What's the percentage of businesses that go out of business? It's a high mortality rate," he says. "That means there's got to be a whole lot of businesses that are on the brink."

CGR shares that concern. In its report, CGR suggests that the city conduct a separate analysis to determine if its efforts are indeed counter-productive to growth: "anecdotal evidence suggests that city enforcement policies may, in fact, be a major contributing factor to the high number of vacant structures in the city," says the report.

CGR concluded that hostile interactions between NET staff and city residents arise, in part, because NET officials are not properly trained. " ... NET civilian employees whose jobs put them in constant one-on-one situations that require conflict resolution skills in the field should receive specialized training, similar to or the same as conflict resolution training received by RPD officers," CGR advised.

The research group also strongly recommended splitting code enforcement and inspection responsibilities. In a worst-case scenario, one inappropriate action can escalate until the city must foreclose on a legitimate property, CGR warned.

Adding to the problem is that NET staff's workload has been increasing, but the workforce has not. Many new or strengthened city initiatives, such as the C of U and a more stringent noise ordinance, fall under NET's jurisdiction. NET staff suffer from higher turnover and burnout rates than other city officials, says the CGR report.

NET staff have become mired in code-related issues, and their role as community advocates --- one of the things that made NET so innovative in 1997 --- has waned. CGR determined that 85 percent of each NET office's workload is devoted to code-related activities.

The city modeled NET on a Miami program, which also located inspectors, code enforcement officials, and police officers in the same building. But Miami, struggling with the same problems as Rochester, re-centralized code enforcement officials and police officers in 2003. Columbus, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland, have done the same.

Whatever the city decides, it is clear that change is already underway. Mayor Bob Duffy relieved NET director Rodney Cox-Cooper of his duties and appointed Molly Clifford, former head of the Monroe County Democratic Committee and his campaign manager, in his place. Each office's NET administrators are also likely to see their jobs come under greater scrutiny in coming months.

In addition to suggesting possible major structural changes, CGR recommended altering several specific actions. For $65,000, says the report, the city could buy handheld computer tablets for inspectors. Despite the initial cost, the move could actually save money. Currently, inspectors write down all their observations on a sheet of paper and give it to a clerk for filing. Technology would enable the city to remove or re-assign four full-time clerks.

CGR also recommended extending NET's office hours into some evenings and weekends.

Despite the complaints, many NET critics say they want to revitalize it, not abolish it. "I still believe that there are a lot of things about NET that are good," says Joan Roby-Davison. "The fact that they have been unevenly administered is a problem." But she adds: "I think that the NET office or the NET administrative staff could return to what was originally envisioned as a facilitator for neighborhood residents to navigate City Hall."

And, she cautions, NET cannot eradicate all of Rochester's problems, or force city residents and business owners to abide by the law. "Some aspects of NET reminds of dealing with my teenagers," she says. "You can nag them all you want, but you can't make them clean their rooms. Just like with NET, you can nag them all you want, but you can't make them mow their grass."


The options

In its report on Rochester’s Neighborhood Empowerment Teams program, the Center for Governmental Research says the city has four options for NET’s future, ranging from keeping the existing basic structure to dismantling NET as a separate entity. In all four, CGR recommends separating the duties of code inspection from those of code enforcement.

• Option 1: Retain the current NET structure, keeping code inspections and code enforcement duties in the NET offices but having them done by different personnel.

• Option 2: Take code functions out of NET and create a new, smaller NET. The six NET administrators would report to the mayor, as they do now. Code inspectors and code enforcement officers would return to City Hall, but the NET offices would keep their police officers and civilian staff. NET offices would function primarily as neighborhood advocacy centers, bringing NET closer to its original “mini City Hall” concept.

• Option 3: Create a smaller NET, as in Option 2, but move NET oversight out of the mayor’s office. Currently, the six NET administrators report to a NET director, who reports to the mayor. In this option, the NET director would report to the head of a city department, such as community development.

• Option 4: Dismantle NET as a separate entity and re-integrate all of its functions back into the community development, environmental services, and police departments.


The recommendations:

Although the CGR study does not recommend what form NET should take in the future, it does spell out some important specific, individual actions. Among them:

• Create a new mission statement that realistically outlines what NET can and cannot accomplish to help promote safe, clean, strong, viable, and attractive neighborhoods.

• Separate duties of code inspection and code enforcement, so that the same people aren’t doing both, and take those responsibilities out of NET.

• More aggressively analyze data about code violations, property-value changes, and changes in criminal activities to assess NET’s impact on city services.

• Assess whether enforcement policies are effective or counter-productive to the goals of NET.

• Consider extending civilian office hours to include some nights and weekends.

• Increase technological capabilities by spending $65,000 on handheld computers for inspectors.

• Create a standardized system for processing incoming service requests and tracking complaints.

• Provide conflict-resolution training for NET civilian personnel, to help them handle difficult situations better.

• Evaluate the controversial Certificate of Use program, which requires many small businesses to register with the city.

• Consider whether enforcement for some code violations should be directed at tenants rather than landlords.

• Study the impact of code enforcement on property values.

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