07/11/2012 11:35 EDT | Updated 09/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Watchful eyes: Budget cuts prompt housing-code enforcers to seek volunteer help

Tamara Schenke could use some help enforcing city codes requiring the residents of Belton, Mo., to maintain the appearance of their property.

So the code enforcement officer recently asked residents to volunteer to help her look for properties with overgrown grass, junk or debris on the lawn, or signs of illegal home occupation. She's optimistic that residents will volunteer for the new program, which includes extensive training, because they've helped with smaller efforts in the past.

"They jump on it," she said. "They want to see their neighbourhood cleaned up."

She needs the extra sets of eyes because the city laid off the other code enforcement officer and the department's secretary a few years ago. The cutbacks came at a time when foreclosures and vacant homes were on the rise, which created additional work for her and code enforcement departments around the country.

Schenke now handles about 2,500 code enforcement cases each year. She hopes to train 30 to 40 volunteers to assist her.

Cities around the country are turning to volunteers for the same reasons as Schenke, said Roy Fyffe, executive director of the American Association of Code Enforcement.

"The budget problems that jurisdictions are facing have had a major impact on looking to our citizens to help," he said from his office in Tow, Texas.

When state budget cuts prevented the city of Eastvale, Calif., from adding paid staff, Michael "Ozzie" Osborn answered the call for volunteers. Once he's trained, he said, he will patrol the city looking for violations such as boats parked in driveways, garbage cans left at the curb or other eyesores.

"It's important that the citizens of the city of Eastvale abide by our municipal code," said the retired engineer.

Concern for the community's appearance also led Steve Crull to enlist in Schenke's new program. The Belton resident was already part of a smaller program where residents with professional training in code enforcement could report violations.

"Having worked as a building codes inspector, I knew that dCouring these times of budget cuts one inspector was going to have a rough time covering the whole city on a regular basis," Crull said. "I believe that everyone should take an interest in their surrounding community. If for no other reason than derelict properties and structures lower property values. But also a volunteer can observe the comings and goings in the neighbourhood and report any more serious crimes."

Schenke hopes to have her program up and running by the end of summer. The city has already created a policy that protects the volunteers while they perform their duties, she said. She also has made provisions to prevent volunteers from misusing their position; she'll make spot checks of the violations they report to make sure they are legitimate, she said.

Before embarking on a volunteer program, cities need to address liability issues, create a training program and determine whether the use of volunteers violates any labour contracts, Fyffe said. "(The issues) are going to vary from state to state and community to community," he said.

In Daytona Beach, Fla., volunteers recently finished 20 hours of classroom training and have begun to do ride-alongs with the professional code enforcement officers, said Hector Garcia, head of code. The volunteers are looking for inappropriate signs along the roadway, unaddressed vandalism to houses and untended lawns.

"It's not to replace my code officers," Garcia said. "It's just a helping hand."

Program participants will be assigned to patrol neighbourhoods other than their own, so they are not in the position of reporting on their neighbours, he said. And the volunteers are not to interact with other residents or business owners anyhow during the course of their work, he said. All contact with the public is to be made through the department.

Many of the programs allow volunteers only to observe violations and report back to paid staff, added Donna Wisniewski, president of the American Association of Code Enforcement and a code officer with the Seminole County Sheriff's Office in Florida, which does not use volunteers for code matters.

Volunteers can check properties to see if owners have mowed their grass, removed trash or inflated the tires on parked vehicles, she said. They also can be on the lookout for possible violations while they are out and about in their neighbourhoods, she said. "We're not able to get out in every neighbourhood every day," she said.

Volunteers typically like the work because they can make a "tangible difference" in the community, Wisniewski said.

"They can say, 'I turned that over to code enforcement and it got taken care of,'" she said.