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LRI questions county's 'lack of vigor'

| September 2, 2005 12:00 AM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

About a dozen members of Libby Revitalization Inc. met with the Lincoln County Commissioners Wednesday to express their concerns and frustration over what they see as the county's lack of vigor in enforcing community decay regulations.

"It appears that enforcement is not a concern with the commissioners or staff," said Dell Goss of LRI's ordinance enforcement committee, reading from a prepared statement.

The committee has reported 41 possible violations in both the county and the city, Goss said. Of the 19 in the city, 15 properties have been cleaned and some citations issued, Goss said. Of the 22 in the county, only one has been cleaned, he said.

Goss said the group wants the county to "actively and aggressively enforce" the community decay regulations that are in place and to "abate public nuisances from public highways."

Commissioner Rita Windom said the county planning staff, initially charged with enforcing the decay ordinance, has been swamped with new subdivisions and hasn't had much time to deal with other things. The county is advertising for an assistant planner and hopes to have one hired within the next few weeks, she said.

Windom said the decay ordinance has been placed under the jurisdiction of the county's environmental health department, which already enforces the similar junk vehicle ordinance. The county sanitarian, who heads the department, has been charged with developing an enforcement plan for the decay ordinance but hasn't drawn one up yet, Windom said.

"So there is movement there," she said.

Goss asked if the sanitarian would be available for a meeting with LRI members.

The county needs to get its plan ready first, said Commissioner Marianne Roose.

"When we get that plan in place, maybe we could have him call you or something, however they decide to do it," she said.

LRI member Tom Wood asked if the county could have the sheriff's office enforce the ordinance. A visit from someone "with a badge and a gun" has more impact than a visit from someone in "street clothes," Wood said. He suggested that things might start to move more quickly if the names of people cited for ordinance violations start showing up in the newspaper.

The commissioners said they would have to talk to the sheriff about that.

"We do not have the right to direct the sheriff's office employees," Roose said.

Commissioner John Konzen said he expects that the environmental health department will write letters to violators and, if no response is received, forward the information to the county attorney's office for enforcement.

"I believe that's a less intrusive way of trying to accomplish the same thing," he said.

The sheriff's office wouldn't be a factor in that scenario, Konzen said.

"That should be plenty of action if we just do that," he said.

LRI member Van Swearingen said the city manager is in charge of enforcing similar ordinances in Kalispell. The city manager receives complaints and sends someone to investigate them, he said. When infractions are found, violators are sent a letter giving them 30 days to clean up their property. If they don't, the city takes charge.

"They rectify the problem," Swearingen said. "Whatever the costs are, they bill to the property owner after 30 days."

"Well, it's nice to have a pot of money to draw from to do that up front," Windom said.

LRI members asked the commissioners for assurances that the environmental health department will be able to handle the enforcement task. The commissioners answered that it's premature to try to answer that question before the sanitarian develops a plan.

LRI member Bobby Whitefield said his group is frustrated by what it perceives as a lack of cooperation from the county.

"It seems like, at least at the county level, no matter what we do we're being stifled," he said.

Roose said it is up to the county's department heads to allocate their time, employees and resources and that the commissioners won't tell them how to do it.