There really is no typical day in the life of a codes enforcement officer. Some who fulfill the position are sworn law enforcement officers. Some await complaints from neighbors; others patrol, looking for violations and trouble spots. All of them need to know the applicable codes adopted by their city or town, with codes covering things like fire and safety, as well as appearance. They also have to know what is and is not allowed in special areas, such as a historic downtown district.
Christopher Morgan is the codes and licensing officer for the City of Hartsville.
Photo: City of Hartsville.
"A really good, productive day is when I come in and have a complaint via email or phone message and I go out and find an actual violation — a warranted complaint — and I can speak with the property owner and they agree to take care of the issue and everybody's happy at the end," said Ben Loughner, codes enforcement officer for the City of Abbeville.
Loughner is a sworn law enforcement officer and a former firefighter.
He said the biggest pushback he gets is from people who don't think he should be allowed to tell them what to do with their property.
"Some people don't understand that it's a criminal offense, not a civil offense," Loughner said. "We run into noncompliance more often than you think."
Some of Loughner's "tips" come from firefighters or the city building inspector who will notice a code violation during an inspection and find that the owner is unwilling to make fixes.
The bulk of his reports, however, come from neighbors of the offending property.
"They report anything that would depreciate the value of a neighborhood," Loughner said, adding that the complaints are often about rental properties or vacant properties. "We do get a lot of complaints on property that is in the city, but the property owner doesn't live there. It's either a rental or vacant."
Loughner says most of the complaints he investigates are about a property owner's failure to maintain the yard or clean up trash and clutter. As a part of his work, he will inspect the property, look up the owner in the city's database and send a letter explaining the violation and give the owner time to make corrections.
If the owner doesn't correct the violation, Loughner says the city can hire a contractor or use the city's public works crew for the work. The city then sends a bill for the work to the property owner.
"Some people try to get the city involved in personal squabbles," he said. "Sometimes complaints aren't necessarily founded. They don't think their neighbor's property looks good, but it's a matter of personal taste."
He said the key to being a good code enforcement officer is to be fair and consistent.
"I love it," he said. "It's something different every day. You never know when you come in what you are going to be dealing with that day."
Some code enforcement officers, like Christopher Morgan in Hartsville, don't wait for complaints: they patrol their territory.
"On a weekly basis, I go out and patrol," he said. "I have self-initiated files. I believe in being proactive and not waiting on complaints."
In addition to code enforcement work, Morgan is also in charge of the city's building permitting. He works within the city's Business Navigator office, which also includes planning and zoning functions. Morgan was a pastor and welder in Sumter, traveling from his home in Hartsville, before he decided to give up the commute and joined the city about three years ago.
He said his first contact with someone who is the subject of a complaint is all about education.
"Normally, I try to meet face to face with people and explain the violation and what they need to do to rectify it," he said. "A lot of times, people go ahead and do it then. They appreciate you taking the time to talk to them."
But sometimes he said, the "education" has to flow back to the complaining resident.
"When someone calls and makes a complaint, they want to see something happen now," Morgan said. "It doesn't work that way."
Cities and towns must in fact follow the notification and due process procedures provided for in state law and municipal ordinances, which allow the violator time to make corrections.
Morgan said his experience as a pastor comes in handy when dealing with neighborhood disputes.
"People know me in this community. I treat people with respect and I can diffuse situations," he said. "That's not to say I don't have a problem communicating with people, but the goal is to dial it down."
Many times, he runs into property owners without the financial means to make repairs, such as a damaged roof or fire damage that goes unrepaired for an extended period. At those times, the corrective action plan requires a little more patience.
"I do run into people who are not very compassionate and not understanding about their neighbors' situation," Morgan said. "If they see their neighbor needs help, maybe they can offer to help."
Neighbors helping each other out is the rule rather than the exception in Loris, said Brandon Harrelson, the city's code enforcement officer and public works director.
"We have really good people and they take care of their neighbors and they look out for each other," said Harrelson, who has been doing code enforcement for two years. "I don't really run into neighbors complaining on their neighbors."
He also patrols for issues and relies on police officers to let him know about problems.
Like Morgan, he said face-to-face contact is his best way of solving problems.
"I'm going to give you some time," he said. "For me, tickets would be last resort, the end of the line. I try to resolve things in a more diplomatic manner."
His most difficult cases are folks who can't afford to bring their homes up to code.
"The roof's caved in or a window's busted out," he said. "We had a house that burned down a year ago and still nothing's been done to it.
"That is one of our most difficult things — dilapidated structures."
The biggest complaints he hears are from property owners who disagree with the applicable regulations.
"You get a lot of 'I've done this my whole life' or 'it's my property, I can do what I want with it,'" he said.
That leads to more explaining and patience.
"It's a lot of communication between the residents and me with questions, zoning and building information," Harrelson said. "The majority of my day is spent in interaction with residents."