Council enacts empty threat

Monday’s meeting of the Pine Bluff City Council exemplifies why things are as they are in this community. Inspection and Zoning Director Robert Tucker and his team had proposed an evidence-based, best practices-guided ordinance to address the specter of nuisance properties that blankets Pine Bluff. In its “infinite” wisdom, the council chose instead to render the ordinance wholly impotent — thus ensuring a continuation of the blighted status quo.

While various council members cloaked their dissent in concerns for “poor grandmothers,” the deeper ramification is protection of serial nuisance facilitators (i.e. absentee and negligent owners).

Tucker’s original proposal — one that had previously advanced through committee — provided for graduated penalties and the possibility of jail time for those who continued to perpetuate the cycle of neighborhood decline. That proposal would have, however, gotten too close to our most venerated local tradition: special rules for special people.

The thought of hauling someone off to jail because she failed to appropriately manage a raft of decrepit property was just too much for the council to bear.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of scene — perhaps the only kind of scene — that would change prevalent local practices. After all, the city now owns hundreds of pieces of abandoned, condemned or otherwise undesirable property that were acquired through tax liens. In short, the negligent owners know they can just wash their hands of the problem by pawning it off on the city. The grim state of so many neighborhoods proves that they’re right.

Meaningful criminal penalties, including the threat of possible jail time, are the only way to interdict this pattern. Even so, the council wouldn’t have it. Yet again, mere facts and reason weren’t enough to sway sentinels of the old order.

Heaven knows they were presented with sufficient reasons to back Tucker’s proposal. As the Commercial reported, Tucker said the penalty language was offered as a “guide” and that violators’ punishments would be decided by a municipal judge. Chief Housing Inspector Mitzi Ruth said the department needed strong enforcement capabilities to contest non-responsive owners of multiple nuisance sites. Alderman Charles Boyd said he was seeking to utilize the proposed legislation against “loopholes” employed by those who have disregarded abatement orders.

Boyd really hit the nail on the head. We have a town managed by loopholes. We have a code of ordinances governing property maintenance generally and rental property in specific that has all the solidity of Swiss cheese. To their “credit” the malefactors know where all the holes are. Sadly, the biggest hole is right in the heart of the city. Other communities use property maintenance laws as a way to ensure neighborhood stability and safety. Other communities use property maintenance laws as a way to prompt development and sell their city. We seem bent on exactly the opposite.

Perhaps the most prescient insight Monday night came from Ruth’s observation that “non-responsive” owners often control many pieces of property. This in itself confirms the larger point: Own one piece of nuisance property and there’ll be heck to pay. Own dozens and you’re home safe.

The citizens are tired of this. They are tired of living across from burned-out hulks. They are tired of watching dilapidated houses succumb to the weeds. They are tired of the crime, vandalism and malaise. Apparently, our city council isn’t.