Improve code enforcement or else, JP council chair says

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Jefferson Parish Sheriff's deputies and detectives work the scene} where a 6 year old girl's body was found before dawn Tuesday, July 16, 2013 on Destrehan Avenue in Harvey. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Jefferson Parish Sheriff's deputies and detectives work the scene} where a 6 year old girl's body was found before dawn Tuesday, July 16, 2013 on Destrehan Avenue in Harvey.

The Jefferson Parish Council’s frustration over the pace of code enforcement actions is at the boiling point, with Council Chairman Chris Roberts threatening to privatize the department if improvements aren’t made.

That threat comes a day after the council grilled administration officials on a half-dozen deserted properties in the Woodmere subdivision — including one near where a 6-year-old girl’s body was discovered last week — that have been blamed for increasing blight and crime in the neighborhood.

“This code director is content with boarding up structures and letting them become vacant structures that crumble,” Roberts said Thursday. “Either this administration is going to take the bull by the horns and get it corrected or we’re going to correct it for them.”

Roberts, who has frequently clashed with Parish President John Young’s administration, described current code-enforcement efforts as unacceptable and said there are thousands of buildings that should be razed throughout the parish. He noted that while hundreds of structures were brought down in the years following the parish’s adoption of an ordinance dealing with vacant buildings in 2006, only 58 were demolished last year.

Code Enforcement Director Tiffany Scot Wilken said in an email that the direction given by the council this week would allow the department to expand its efforts to deal with derelict properties.

“I look forward to working to get these structures down on the ground,” Wilken said. “Our legal counsel is on board with the current initiative such that we should be able to proceed forcefully and legally.”

Code enforcement has long been a point of contention between the administration and the council. The fight flared up last month as well, when council members criticized code enforcement officials and the landscaping company they contract with for allowing grass to grow too high on blighted properties.

More recently, boarded and derelict buildings in the parish have taken center stage after Ahlittia Hill’s lifeless body was found in a trash can outside of 2836 Destrehan Ave. earlier this month. The grim discovery came days after she disappeared from her home a block away. Matthew Flugence, a relative of Ahlittia’s, is now being held without bail on one count of first-degree murder.

Whether or not the blighted status of the properties played a role in Ahlittia’s death, Councilman Mark Spears has said those buildings and five others nearby have contributed to crime in the area.

Roberts said he’s willing to give code enforcement officials time to speed up their handling of blighted building cases, but he wants to see results in the coming months. If not, he said, the council could vote to privatize the agency.

“It’s been a festering issue for a while now,” Roberts said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s gotten to this point.”

On Wednesday, the council also gave final approval to contracts for the completion of the beleaguered Jefferson Performing Arts Center, which has been mired in construction problems for years. Council members had conceptually signed off on that agreement last month.

The new deal between the parish and contractor J. Caldarera and Co. gives the company one more year to complete the project and adds about $9.8 million to its total cost. That would bring the price tag for the center, which has been under construction for six years, to $54.4 million, more than twice the $26.5 million that it was originally projected to cost.