El Dorado News

Friday
February 23, 2018
El Dorado News Times

Council approves over $800K in expenses, almost half going to house razing

By Tia Lyons
This article was published February 9, 2018 at 5:00 a.m.

The El Dorado City Council approved on Thursday more than $819,400 in capital expenditures, with nearly half the amount going toward razing condemned structures and enlarging the city dog pound.

Alderman voted unanimously on the 2018 capital improvement spending, agreeing to pull money from the city’s reserve coffers to help cover the projects, which include:

• $179,000 for five new SUVs and related equipment for the El Dorado Police Department.

• $177,500 for three new cardiac monitors, 45 new sets of protective gear, and a generator for a heating and air unit for the El Dorado Fire Department.

• $80,000 for two new pickup trucks for the Sanitation Department.

The items were approved last week during an El Dorado City Council Finance Committee meeting.

Click photo to enlarge

The package also calls for $300,000 to take down condemned structures to help curb criminal activity — including drug dealing and dog fighting —, to help beautify the city, and improve health and safety in residential neighborhoods.

City officials and departments agreed to come together to tackle a backlog of condemned structures and the crime that occurs in them.

They addressed the issue during a special meeting last week after learning that dog fighting had become a growing problem within vacant structures in city limits.

The house at 707 Louisiana had been razed a week prior after El Dorado police and Union County Animal Control Officer Charles Hartsell received a tip of dog fighting there.

No one was on the scene when officers arrived, but the scene that was left behind was gruesome.

A dog’s head had been severed, and there were blood and bite sticks throughout the house, they said.

Alderman Vance Williamson noted that the Louisiana Avenue house had been on the city’s condemnation list for 18 months.

Mayor Frank Hash, Robert Edmonds, director of public works, and Code Enforcement Officer Kirby Craig said city crews had gotten behind on razing condemned properties, having been pulled onto other city projects.

Craig, a former firefighter with the EFD, said he had placed the condemnation process on hold until crews could get caught up.

City officials asked the police, fire and public works departments to work together to help rid the city of derelict properties.

Hash asked for $300,000 from city reserve coffers to help advance the process by hiring a contractor to complement in-house work by the city.

An additional $30,000 was needed to help cover overtime pay for the fire department to use the structures for controlled burns and other training exercises, finance committee members said.

Alderman Billy Blann called on his fellow city officials to aggressively attack the problem.

He previously proposed a condemnation process that would require the city to collect a fee from property owners, file a lien against the title if the fee is not paid, attempt to take possession of the property if there is no response from the property owner, and acquire the property to offer for sale.

“Some effort is needed to keep the landscape looking reasonable,” Blann said.

He reiterated those statements on Thursday, and City Attorney Henry Kinslow said he filed a lawsuit to get a legal judgement, noting that liens are often ineffective.

Alderman Judy Ward reminded Blann that Edmonds and Craig said they often have difficulty pinning down the owners of properties because many property owners live out of town, and several owners are sometimes listed for one property.

Alderman Willie McGhee suggested that the council form a committee, possibly made up of citizens, to review properties that are up for condemnation and determine if the properties need to be razed or if they could be rehabbed and sold.

“When we tear them down, the lots look worse than the house did,” McGhee said.

Williamson said he was pushing for an aggressive program to raze condemned structures to help curb the crime that often occurs inside.

“A lot may not look as nice, but at least you can see what they’re doing out in the open,” Williamson said.

McGhee disagreed, saying that he often receives calls from citizens, particularly elderly residents, who are afraid that “somebody might jump out (of overgrown vegetation) and attack them as they’re going into their house.”

“We’ve got a $100 million project downtown, but people have to come through certain areas to get down there,” McGhee said, referring to the Murphy Arts District.

“First impressions are everything,” he said, adding that the city should at least focus on vacant lots on the main thoroughfares.

Blann noted that it costs the city $1.50 per square foot to raze a structure and haul the debris to the Union County Landfill.

“If we’re fixing to spend $300,000, I’d like to see a scorecard of what we’re doing,” he said.

Blann said he would like detailed information on the number of condemned structures that are taken down, the rate and method at which they are demolished and the costs.

City officials also agreed to expand the dog pens at the city pound because of the number of dogs that are brought in and the amount of time they are kept there before they are adopted or euthanized.

Alderman Dianne Hammond, chairman of the Finance Committee, said the capital improvement proposals from the police, fire and public works departments totaled $436,500, and $413,593 was left in the budget for 2018.

She said an additional $22,907 was needed from city reserves, plus the $360,000 for the condemned houses, EFD overtime pay and work on at the dog pound.

Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or tlyons@eldoradonews.com.

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