HARTFORD —— Just months after the Livable and Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative started last January, the fledgling anti-blight program was struggling.
Communication had already broken down between the various departments involved, standard procedures weren't in place and the city failed to recoup the money it spent cleaning 37 private properties found to be in violation of Hartford's anti-blight ordinance.
A series of reports — two drafted by the city and a third by its internal audit commission — found that LSNI lacked the oversight and expertise needed to make it successful.
So administrators reworked LSNI, reviewed its operations and changed the way some things are done.
Among the changes is a new method for generating bills, identified as a problem by the audit. Of the 37 properties cleaned by the city as part of LSNI, only 13 had documentation, according to the audit. Those invoices totaled $16,936.42. A review of license and inspection records showed that the city lost $27,571 as a result of improper documentation of the cleanups.
LSNI now uses financial management software, and regular meetins are held to discuss the cleanups.
Since August, the city has cleaned 35 private properties — 19 of which have been billed for the services. Invoices for the others are being processed, said Interim Chief Operating Officer Saundra Kee Borges, who is in charge of the initiative.
"We're now making decisions as a group," said Breyonne Golding, an assistant to Kee Borges who is in charge of the city's north and west regions for LSNI. "When it first started, everyone had their own perceptions of what LSNI was. People had conflicting ideas of what was expected. Now everyone knows what we do and what their role is, and that makes a huge difference."
The city has also fine-tuned its process for holding property owners accountable for blight. Under the previous system, property owners would receive a violation notice, and then a fine of $99 for each time they failed to respond. Over the course of multiple days, property owners typically amassed between four and seven $99 tickets, said Steve Frank, an acting assistant to the chief operating officer who oversees the city's south and central areas for LSNI.
Now, property owners are given a violation notice and a 10-day grace period in which to respond. Those who don't respond are issued a citation. If the owner doesn't come forward within another 10 days to appeal the citation, the city schedules a cleanup. After the property is cleaned, the owner gets a bill. If that bill goes unpaid, it is eventually attached to the property owner's tax bill. So far, such debts have been added to 12 property owners' tax bills, Golding said.
Administrators also changed the way LSNI operates. The program now has two team captains — Golding and Frank — instead of four. One captain is responsible for the north and west regions of the city, while another covers the south and central.
"Because it was new and there was so much there, we felt there was a need for four [captains]," Kee Borges said. "Now we have our arms around it."
One of the reports noted that no one from LSNI responded to phone calls from residents seeking information about special programs that could help pay for home repairs. Kee Borges said officials in the program have "taken steps to make sure when someone calls that number, there's a return phone call."
"The rolls are more defined," she said of the initiative. "We had set up a couple different operating systems before, and we didn't take the time to sit down and see if those processes worked together. We're all working in the same direction now."
Several city departments and divisions participate in the anti-blight program, including public works, finance, internal audit, health and human services and housing.
Beyond blighted private properties, the city is also cracking down on littering and illegal dumping through LSNI. Four functioning cameras and 12 fake cameras have been installed in city neighborhoods to film illegal dumping. Golding monitors the cameras, and reports suspicious activity to police. "No dumping" signs have also been installed in various places.
In the future, Kee Borges said she hopes to collaborate with Hartford Area Habitat For Humanity on improvement efforts to local properties, helping to fix up homes plagued by blight issues.
"I think we're beginning to see progress," Kee Borges said. "There are a lot of things going on.
"We're not satisfied, though," she quickly added. "We still have a lot of work to do."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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