City starts new policy on crime Ticketing residents for nuisance offenses aims for quality of life

Politician questions cost

Approach modeled after other cities that saw problems drop

October 17, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore will soon issue tickets with penalties up to $500 to residents who commit any of 65 city nuisance crimes, ranging from illegal trash dumping to animal cruelty.

Following the lead of cities such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, Baltimore hopes to improve the quality of life in the city by taking enforcement responsibility out of the hands of criminal courts, where criminal citations from city agencies such as animal control and public works traditionally linger unresolved.

Residents will be able to appeal the tickets -- which begin at $25 -- to a civil hearing officer hired by a newly created 13-member Environmental Control Board. Like a zoning board, the panel will serve in a quasi-judicial role, levying fines and ruling on challenges.

"It's the same as a speeding ticket," said Elias Dorsey, the city's assistant health commissioner who devised the plan. "You've broken the law. You either pay the fine or ask for a hearing."

But the estimated $1.1 million operating cost of the new agency is being questioned by a City Council veteran. Northwest Baltimore Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector is worried about the impact on the city budget.

While Spector criticizes the agency's budget, other council members worry that it may become rife with plum political appointments.

Looking over the agency's first-year budget, Spector noted the projected spending, which she considers excessive.

"Five full-time attorneys at $50,000 a year, 20 per diem attorneys at $40 an hour, $300,000 for word processors, $100,000 for office equipment," Spector said in a committee hearing this week. "We have tons of [extra] desks and chairs in this building."

The administration recently warned the council that annual city spending is growing by 2 percent to 4 percent as citizens' personal income rises about 1 percent. That could leave the city with a budget deficit of $25 million within two years.

Administration leaders counter that the fines collected will make the new agency self-sufficient within a few years. In New York, the city agency spends $3 million a year and receives $13 million annually in fines.

City administrators say the crackdown is long overdue. They have been frustrated by their inability to force residents to abide by city sanitation, pet and pollution ordinances and the resulting accumulation of filth. Many cases have fallen to the bottom of a court priority list burdened with drug and gun cases.

Dorsey began studying the civil citation process five years ago when an increase of rats in Baltimore caused the administration to comb the nation for solutions.

"It's zero-tolerance," Dorsey said. "It's a quality-of-life issue to attract people back to the city."

The move is being welcomed by city agency leaders such as Bob Anderson, director of the Animal Control Bureau. Anderson and his predecessors have taken heat for being unable to enforce the piles of criminal citations filed against pet owners.

Not anymore. Animal control officers received citation books this week, and the first hearings before the new board are scheduled for Jan. 20. "It is a 100 percent help for me," Anderson said. "I do not have to go through the courts."

Attorneys hired by the board will serve as hearing administrators, ruling on the cases. Citizens who refuse to pay the fines could face criminal prosecution, Dorsey said. During a visit to Boston, Dorsey saw the prosecution powers work while interviewing a program administrator there.

"He was so excited because he had just come out of court where a guy was fined $10,000 for polluting the St. Charles River," Dorsey said.

Public Works Director George G. Balog will serve as the chairman of the Environmental Control Board. The city's police, fire, health and housing departments will have representatives. The remainder of the board will be comprised of a City Council liaison, two city residents, a representative from small business and real estate, and citizens with backgrounds in noise and water pollution and solid waste.

On Wednesday, the council appointments committee approved the nomination of Richard Krummerich, former council liaison for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, to serve as executive director of the agency.

The agency will have 113 enforcement officers. Last year, the city issued 5,000 criminal citations that were paid, bringing in $125,000. To break even, Krummerich told council members the officers will need to generate about 72,000 tickets each year.

That means that Baltimore residents can expect to quickly feel the impact of the crackdown.

"These citations were never effectuated in court," Balog said. "Now, we want to go after those who are making the city dirty and take action against them. We want to make our streets the cleanest in America."

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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