When homeowners and landlords tell Brittany Parks that they will fix their storm gutters, clean up their yards or cut their weeds, she is often inclined to believe them.
But this year, she isn't just taking their word for it.
Every conversation the city's five code enforcement officers have with property owners now comes with a written warning, when previously a verbal promise sometimes would be enough. The increased documentation is just one part of the city's plan to build a case against repeat offenders.
While city officials said the goal is always compliance, some owners just won't comply.
Mayor Randy McClement and the Board of Aldermen set up a new process last summer that allows the city to take owners of habitually vacant and blighted properties to court. The court could then appoint another, more qualified owner for the property. To do this, though, city officials say the city must strengthen its case.
"We are throwing everything at it that we have," said Dan Hoffman, code enforcement manager.
So far this year, the city's code enforcement office has handled nearly double the caseload of last year, with 1,883 cases opened so far compared with 744 this time last year. In all of last year, the city opened 1,918 cases.
Some of the increase is due to the cold winter, with 523 cases for snow- and ice-related issues this year, compared with four cases last year. But the increase is also due to more reporting by residents and more tracking on the part of the officers, Hoffman said.
"If we are giving out verbal warnings, we wouldn't have that logged in our systems," he said. "Now, we are getting a better snapshot of what we are dealing with and how many repeat offenders."
Along with the increased notices, the city is increasing its use of citations for property owners who don't comply.
The city has rarely issued citations in the past, but this year, by March 7, the city had already issued 21 citations to property owners, for fines of $100 to $500 each.
Still, some residents aren't buying it. They have watched some buildings on Frederick's main downtown streets sit vacant for more than 10 years.
"The city has no followup," Ned Bond, a property owner, told McClement at a May 20 neighborhood meeting. "You just aren't interested."
The crowd applauded after Bond told the mayor that the city's lack of structure, deadlines and consequences is not fighting blight but "creating blight."
If the city is making positive changes, Andy Stout, a downtown resident, calls it a "victory" on behalf of the residents.
"That is what we have been shooting for," he said.
But Stout said he thinks the city is doing a poor job of using the residents' focus and energy to its advantage. Residents were so upset earlier this year about lack of progress on the old Asiana restaurant building on North Market Street that they held a walking rally from the building to the steps of City Hall.
The city could connect residents who want to see change to residents who genuinely need help fixing up their properties, and create a citizen's review board to separate the politics from the facts, Stout said.
"Why not take that energy," he said, "and harness it and make a really positive change?"
Changing its ways
Residents are reporting more potential violations this year, after the city increased awareness about the reporting system on its website, Hoffman said.
The system has been around for a couple of years but was recently updated, he said. The city has also just launched a smartphone app, called iSpires, to allow residents to report violations by phone.
This means more work for code enforcement officers. Hoffman said the city has talked about adding people to the department in the next budget year.
Residents argue that blighted downtown buildings are more important than neighbors who don't cut their grass. But Hoffman said to him that 18-inch grass is just as important as other complaints.
Still, buildings identified as being blighted — those posing a serious or immediate danger to the health, safety or general welfare of the community — will soon take priority, he said. These are the buildings that could end up in the receivership process.
First, the city will need to decide which buildings are actually blighted.
Zack Kershner, the city's director of public works, said he has come up with a list of a dozen properties that are in the worst shape. The city's attorney is reviewing the list before it is released publicly, he said.
The list will dictate which properties the city could eventually take to court.
The city has also issued a request for qualifications for receivers who are interested in taking ownership of blighted buildings. The deadline for the applications is July 21. These need to be in place before court proceedings, McClement said.
In the meantime, Hoffman said he is trying to make his officers' timelines for followup and reporting systems more consistent, and he is helping his department set up new technology that will allow officers to do their jobs faster.
While Parks used to track violations with pen and paper, she is now testing a new computer system that would make the work electronic.
Hoffman hopes to meet with elected officials soon to outline what would qualify as a repeat offender and to determine penalties, including escalating fines.
Residents watching it all unfold said the city isn't acting fast enough.
They are sick of being lectured and scolded for not having patience, Stout said.
"These guys get so hung up on the process."
Follow Jen Bondeson on Twitter: @Jen_Bondeson.