John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wilmington had a problem. Sanitation-related complaints were flooding its Division of Licenses & Inspections (L&I), as neighborhoods were being dragged down by trash left outside homes and businesses, junk peppering properties, and other unsavory (and unsanitary) practices. Prior to 2007, these infractions were designated as criminal violations, meaning any effort to enforce violations would be bogged down in lengthy court proceedings, often up to eight weeks.
To turn things around, Mayor James Baker introduced an innovative "Instant Ticketing Program" that enabled city officials to respond immediately to problems, while at the same time promoting the goal of safe, clean, and physically attractive neighborhoods.
After L&I and the City Law Department reviewed the relevant legal barriers, L&I developed the Instant Ticketing Program, which enabled L&I officials to write up $50 tickets that work much like parking tickets. With the Mayor's legislative sponsorship and community mobilization efforts, the Instant Ticketing Program was quickly moved through the City Council and the State Legislature. In May 2007, about a year after the idea was initially floated, the first instant tickets were issued. Two years later, enforcement actions have increased five-fold (from roughly 9,000 in FY06 to over 50,000 in FY08) and generated almost $350,000 in gross revenue, against a relatively low annual operating expenses of $43,000. The City projects that revenue gained from the instant ticketing will remain stable through FY10, helping mitigate losses in other revenue streams.
Most important, neighborhoods are getting cleaner and safer.
The $50 tickets, which function much like parking tickets, are issued to owners with properties in violation of the City's sanitation codes (i.e. junk/debris, high grass/weeds, improper trash disposal, dumping, and accumulation of fecal matter). Violators are given 30 calendar days to pay; otherwise the fee jumps to $100. If owners refuse to pay, then the City has authority to attached unpaid fines to property tax bills.
Neighborhood groups that have partnered with Wilmington on other clean-up efforts also serve as additional "eyes-on-the-street" that notify inspectors of various violations. Enforcement Officers, who are assigned to specific regions to gain knowledge on "hot spots," are outfitted with digital cameras to document violations. While the City offers 21 days for appeal, L&I Commissioner Jeff Starkey says the program has experienced a relatively low number of appeals, which he believes can be attributed to the digital documentations. "Negligent property owners find it difficult to argue with a citation featuring a full color photograph depicting the violation on their property," notes Starkey.
For Starkey and other Wilmington officials, the real benefit of the program is not so much its revenue-generating capacity, but how it has allowed L&I to improve service, better satisfy constituent needs, and improve neighborhoods. Today, inspectors, who have been extremely receptive to the change, are more visible in neighborhoods and able to focus on complex, potentially life-saving inspections rather than nuisance complaints.
While the program has allowed inspectors to speed up neighborhood improvement, it has triggered action on part of residents to beautify and enhance the appearance of communities. In some areas, citizens and civic groups have created working groups to work cooperatively with government agencies to address other, related quality of life concerns. This type of behavioral change has been noted by Starkey, who values the relationship with neighborhood groups and emphasizes the importance of public awareness and informational campaigns prior to implementation, particularly when recommending the initiative to other cities. Wilmington held a number of public meetings where citizens were able to understand implications beyond more cash for the budget.
As expected, the biggest challenge with instant ticketing revolves around rental properties. Currently Wilmington has about a 50/50 owners-to-renters ratio. The associated turnover inhibits education efforts, despite the six months campaign L&I staged prior to implementation. One strategy employed has been issuing warning notices.
However, dealing with landlords, especially absentee landlords has been a thornier problem. Many claim they shouldn't be responsible for irresponsible tenants. To address this issue, L&I has taken a case-by-case approach, offering to work with landlords if they can back-up claims (i.e. the landlord has down due diligence in educating tenants) and hold tenants responsible when appropriate.
Moving forward, the City would like to improve identification of "hot spots" as well as explore wireless technologies and mobile handheld devices that would make things even more instant.
Budget shortfalls are pushing many local governments to the "no-fee left unturned" philosophy. In Wilmington, sanitation fines via the Instant Ticketing Program are bringing in some much needed revenue, while also addressing a long-standing municipal challenge.
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John O'Leary (email@example.com) is the executive editor of the Ash Institute's Better, Faster, Cheaper web site, and coauthor of the book "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon..." recently published by the Harvard Business School Press.