Salisbury Considers ‘Habitual Offender’ Changes

SALISBURY — Because current legislation has been deemed ineffective by Neighborhood Services and Code Compliance (NSCC), the Salisbury City Council has started to review a revised “Habitual Offender” ordinance that the city hopes will significantly cut down on repeat visits to troubled properties.
Susan Phillips, interim director of NSCC, sent a memo dated Aug. 30 to Tom Stevenson, interim city administrator, suggesting a change to Salisbury’s habitual offender code. The current requirements are unrealistic, according to Phillips.
“Because the conditions to become a habitual offender are so uncommon, to date no property owner has received the designation,” she wrote. “In actuality, the lofty requirements have rendered the statute ineffective.”
As of now, a property owner would have to either pay three NSCC issued citations over a 24-month period or be found guilty on three separate occasions by the Wicomico County District Court over the same time period. The new, suggested requirements would be more flexible and the habitual offender designation would be given after a property reached any combination of five of either confirmed NSCC calls for service, citations paid or guilty verdicts in District Court over a 12-month period.
“Once you reach that threshold of five, then you would be fined,” Stevenson told the council.
The overall goal of the changes is to target the small percentage of properties that require constant attention from NSCC, said Phillips.
“While we experience an exceptionally high voluntary compliance rate, plus or minus 95-percent, we often return to the same properties over and over again,” she wrote. “These repeated visits are costly and use up valuable resources.”
Stevenson, who served as NCSS director prior to his appointment as interim city administrator, further elaborated on Phillips’ concerns. “What we’re trying to stop here, as you know and we’ve been talking about this for some time now, is going back to that same property 10, 15, 16 times in a year to just remind the property owner.”
Members of the council did not doubt there was a problem, but some worried about the language in the new legislation. Councilwoman Laura Mitchell took issue with the change in designation from “habitual offender” to “chronic nuisance property,” though Council President Jake Day said that he only sees it as a matter of semantics.
Mitchell also worried about how fair the ordinance would be to property owners who are renting to troubled tenants.
“There’s only so much that a property owner can do to ensure that somebody is going to do what they’re supposed to do according to the lease,” she said.
Stevenson admitted that the legislation isn’t perfect but said that some flexibility should be left with the administration to address the issues Mitchell worries about on a case-by-case basis.
“We can probably resolve quite a few of these in-house,” he said.
Other proposed changes include a removal of any language referencing homeowners or renters. Instead, all properties will fall under umbrella terms and both commercial and residential sites will be affected by the legislation. The council asked Stevenson to work with city attorney Mark Tilghman to tweak the language of the ordinance to better define how penalties will work and a few other corrections.
The revised ordinance is scheduled for discussion at the council’s next legislative session.