Sawmills code enforcement settles down

New process called effective, but still divisive
Mar. 23, 2013 @ 08:03 AM

Cleaning up the Town of Sawmills was not as easy as once thought, but at least no one says the town is becoming Communist anymore.

Complaints against property owners for code violations now are a fraction of what they were when the first hired enforcer rode into town from Charlotte in 2010, but opinions are still as varied as the types of complaints that once filtered through that lone enforcer.

“The biggest difference now is that we no longer take anonymous complaints, and we don’t go looking for violations anymore,” said Town Administrator Seth Eckard.

Sawmills contracted in October 2010 with Benchmark CMR Inc., which assists local governments with planning, land growth and other services, for planning and code enforcement. A code enforcement committee of council members was already in place, but Cline was the public face of Benchmark, and of code enforcement. Cline didn't just investigate complaints from the public, he went looking for violations. From October 2010 to February 2012, 104 complaints were lodged against property owners, many initiated by Cline. Civil citations were issued. Two structures at one property were demolished. Commercial property was not spared, including Commercial Outdoor Signs, a small operation owned by Arnold and Councilman Jeff Wilson.

Some Sawmills leaders said it was too heavy-handed. Others said they had second thoughts about the amount they were paying Benchmark.

“It’s a whole lot of expense we need to do away with," Wilson said during a council meeting in January 2012, when council members starting discussing terminating the contract. "It (code enforcement) should be done in the office of Sawmills. It doesn't need to be spent on Benchmark.”

Citizens complained about Cline’s style. Discussions to terminate the contract with Benchmark sent the mercury rising even higher during the two-hour meeting.

“They’re trying to turn us into a Communist country,” Renneth Minton, a town resident who received numerous letters from Cline about his propert, said. “We’re Sawmills.”

The next month, the council voted to terminate Benchmark’s contract. On July 1, Sawmills contracted with the Western Piedmont Council of Governments for code enforcement and planning. Citizens no longer can file anonymous complaints. The committee decides how to handle complaints. Serious violations, such as chemical spills, are handled by Johnny Wear of the WPCOG.

From February 2012 through this past Thursday, only 16 complaints have been lodged.

"With two council members, plus Seth (Eckard) meeting, we have more than one opinion," said Councilwoman Trena McRary Kirby. “Now that we take it to council, it's a lot more fair, rather than just one person being in total control. I think it’s a lot better.”

WPCOG also is less expensive than Benchmark -- costing the town $19,600 for 12 months, instead of $38,000, the amount Sawmills would have paid had Benchmark's contract not been terminated.

Councilman Donnie Potter, who was outspoken in favor of Benchmark’s methodology, admits that complaints are down, but he still feels the council should be taken out of the code enforcement process.

“Having that outside person makes code enforcement stronger,” Potter said. “When you make it political, it takes away from the effectiveness. Now, we have two council members it has to go through. It was easier for people to call down there (Town Hall) and say, 'Can you come down and look at this?' You do take away that guy who’s mad at his neighbor, though. It’s been a good compromise. Would I like a better process? Yes.”