Understanding county nuisance enforcement

Regional Utility Service Systems is expected to approve its new relationship with Jefferson County as nuisance ordinance non-compliance officer.

The Jefferson County Supervisors approved the agreement with RUSS at the July 2 board meeting. The changes to the ordinance allow for the designation of a third-party, in this case RUSS, to act on behalf of the county as an enforcement agent. The revised ordinance also makes more clear the penalties associated with non-compliance, which can be up to $1,000 per day.


All complaints to be investigated

The county will pay RUSS an annual fee of $50,500 to investigate complaints, make determinations and notify appropriate parties throughout the process. RUSS will begin by investigating all existing complaints regardless of any previous work done on them. RUSS will start the new program as soon as their own board of directors approves the agreement with Jefferson County, which it is expected to do.

The nuisance ordinance is composed of six sections which define and prohibit the seven types of nuisances addressed by the ordinance and provide for their abatement. The ordinance also empowers the county to act in emergency conditions, lists certain exclusions and sets forth the potential civil penalties for ongoing non-compliance.

RUSS was formed by several counties in southeast Iowa in 1999 to help participating communities obtain funding, oversee installation and do regulation enforcement for water and wastewater treatment. They also assist communities with pool enforcement for hotels and spas, wells, tanning and tattoo shop enforcement and other public health and environmental related programs. Nuisance enforcement is a new program.

RUSS provides participating counties with a highly specialized pool of technical, bureaucratic and funding talent for its mission that may be otherwise cost prohibitive for the counties to hire and manage individually. RUSS director Bruce Hudson is confident in his organization?s ability to add value and cost-savings for counties.

?It?s hard to find our expertise in southeast Iowa,? he said. ?Since we are a governmental entity, we can do these things cheaper because we?re specialized in a lot of different areas. We can do wastewater, we can do an inspection or the nuisance program or a pool all on the same day in the same county.?

While RUSS won?t begin the new program for another week, the change will mark a turning point for Jefferson County in its ability to apply consistent enforcement of the ordinance and follow-up. RUSS will apply a regimen of documented policies and actions and process nuisance complaints through a predictable abatement process.


Change from ?complaint-only? model

In this program and in its other activities in Jefferson County, RUSS will refer any violations it sees to the county. This is a change from the current ?complaint-only? model.

The process begins with a complaint which will be referred to RUSS to investigate. If RUSS determines there is a nuisance covered by the ordinance, a notice will be served by mail or in person upon the property owner and upon the person occupying the premises, if not the owner.

Upon receiving the notice, the property owner has 30 days to mitigate the nuisance or dispute the finding by requesting in writing a hearing with the board of supervisors, who will make a final determination. If they uphold the finding by RUSS, the owner will have 30 days to mitigate the issue. RUSS will verify and report to the board the status of the nuisance.

If the person notified to abate the nuisance fails to abate as directed, the county may perform the necessary actions without prior notice. The county has discretion to approve the total expense and provide a statement to the property owner who will have 30 days to settle the statement or face collection in the same manner as general property taxes.

If the county does not act to abate the issue and the property owner fails to act, the violation will be referred to the county attorney who can begin civil proceedings in court.

The civil penalty for failure to abate can be as much as $750 for the first violation and $1,000 for subsequent violations. The ordinance treats each day that a violation continues as a separate and distinct offense meaning that the penalties can add up quickly.

Assistant County Attorney Pat McAvan was directly involved in rewriting the ordinance to accommodate the relationship with RUSS, or any third-party, and to underscore and clarify the penalties for non-compliance.

?It would get forwarded to the attorney?s office if there?s need of any court action to enforce our ordinance,? he said. ?If it?s determined that it?s a nuisance and RUSS goes through their policies and the person gets it cleaned up, it never comes to me. There are penalties we can pursue if we can demonstrate in court that the nuisance exists and it hasn?t been cleaned up.?