Abandoned houses major topic of Coffee with the Chief’s program Tuesday

Although Pine Bluff Alderman Thelma Walker wanted to talk about ongoing projects and the possibility of a sales tax to fund youth programs, many in her audience Tuesday had a different topic in mind — abandoned houses.

Walker is chairman of the city council’s Community Development Committee and was the speaker at the monthly Coffee with the Chiefs program, sponsored by Interested Citizens for Voter Registration (ICVR).

The discussion began when a member of the audience complained that are were many houses in the city that have been condemned, but only a few of them are demolished.

Walker explained that the city has no demolition equipment, and private contractors have to be hired to perform the work, adding that the work is generally very costly.

“Why can’t the city give the houses to people and allow them a certain time to clean them up?” asked the Rev. Kerry Price Sr.

“They don’t belong to the city,” Walker said. “In a lot of cases, they belong to people who don’t live here anymore.”

In response to a question from Rod Shelby, who asked whether the city might rebuild a torn-down house for another tenant, Walker said “I don’t think that would work. The city can’t get into the rental business.”

The Rev. Steven King, pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church, where the program was held, asked Walker if there were any written guidelines on how long a house has to be abandoned before action is taken to tear it down.

“In some cases, houses have been there 20 years, or 10 years,” King said. “If there’s something in writing, we need to get it done.”

Walker said that while she didn’t know exactly what the Inspection Department’s policies were, she would get the information and bring it back for the next meeting.

Walker also said she had discussed the idea of having the fire department burn down some of the abandoned houses as a training tool, but Fire and Emergency Services Chief Shauwn Howell rejected that idea.

“We can’t burn houses down anymore,” Howell said. “The laws have changed because of EPA regulations.

“I’m on board to do something about abandoned houses,” Howell said. “They’re an eyesore, they’re a safety issue and it would make our lives a lot safer but it’s a lengthy process.”

Howell said the biggest problem is financing the demolition since a private contractor would have to haul the material to a landfill and pay a dump fee to dispose of it.

“The city doesn’t have that cost associated with demolition budgeted,” Howell said.

Walker also came under fire from Mike Barbarotto, who lives in her ward, for not attending the recent town hall meeting conducted by Mayor Debe Hollingsworth.

“I don’t think I’m not accessible,” Walker said. “The last meeting with the mayor was a bad time for me.”

Walker said anyone who wants to talk to her can “feel free to call me.”

In her initial remarks, Walker outlined some of the ongoing projects that are being financed with bond money from the five-eighths cent sales tax, including the construction of a new fire station, remodeling of two existing stations, the extension of sewer lines past Walmart, a splash park at Saracen Landing, the Saracen Landing Walking Trail and work at Townsend Park and Martin Luther King Jr., Park.

“We need to build up our image,” Walker said. “We can’t do anything as a city if we continue to talk down about it.”

Walker also made a pitch for a one-cent sales tax increase to fund youth programs, saying that the money could go into a pool to create not only recreational programs, but also offer scholarships.

“One cent is not a lot to invest in our children,” Walker said. “We’re always criticizing our children but we’re not doing anything for them.”

Before Walker’s presentation, Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks announced that Lt. Lance Lawhon and officers Shaun Cook and David Norton were the recipients of the monthly Eyes and Ears Commendation Award from the Mayor’s Office and ICVR for their actions on Feb. 21 at Jefferson Comprehensive Care, where a mental patient had taken two nurses hostage.

“There was reason to believe he was armed, out of control and dangerous and they went into the room and showed great restraint in taking the suspect into custody without any injuries,” Hubanks said.

Hubanks said the actions demonstrated that the department’s officers know how to perform their duties, and the actions of the three are something other members of the department can use as an example of “what to do and how to do it.”

The three were also named the department’s Officers of the Month.

The Rev. Jesse Turner, coordinator of ICVR, announced that the next meeting of Coffee with the Chiefs will be the first Tuesday in April at First Assembly of God Church on Ridgway Road. The speaker will be Third Ward Alderman Bill Brumett.