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“SEE THE CITY BEAUTIFUL…”
The August activity report for the Cotulla municipal court presented to city councilors last week showed that there had been no citations filed, no hearings in front of a judge, and no fines or fees levied.
The blank report, offered by City Administrator David Wright, was evidence of a lapse in the city’s code compliance and enforcement efforts, due in large part to the absence of an officer to carry out the job.
Although hired only two months previously, Glenn Harlow has resigned his position as the code enforcement officer for Cotulla, becoming the second to do so in a year. He has been replaced this month by Juanita Fonseca, who reported to councilors on Tuesday, September 19, that she has begun working on identifying compliance failures and taking on special projects for City Hall.
Fonseca previously served as municipal secretary for the city of Dilley.
Harlow and his predecessor in the job, Joey Garcia, had been onetime deputies with the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office and were licensed peace officers, a job attribute that Cotulla city officials touted as useful in the issuance of citations for court hearings.
“The city has struggled to keep code enforcement officers,” Wright told councilors last week. “Without one, we can’t issue citations. The new officer we have now is eager to get started.”
The city administrator said he believes Cotulla residents have indicated code enforcement is a high priority for municipal government, and added that a large number voiced their concerns in recent town hall meetings and in a survey hosted by Aries Consulting for creation of a city strategic plan.
“The people want to see it happen,” Wright said of an improved enforcement of city ordinances, notably with regard to neighborhood clean-up. “They want to see the city beautiful. They don’t want to see the abandoned vehicles and trash in the streets.”
Before he resigned his position earlier in the year, Officer Garcia had sent letters to residents with derelict vehicles in front of their homes, trash in their yards or overgrown lots, encouraging them to take action towards beautifying their neighborhoods. Follow-up letters included warnings to repeat offenders that inoperable vehicles may not be left on public rights of way. Citations were then issued to those who failed to take action; a number of vehicles were towed to a wrecking yard at owners’ expense.
In other enforcement action, the city developed a shortlist last year of more than a dozen properties that were deemed dilapidated, abandoned, derelict and a public nuisance. Buildings and mobile homes were demolished at a rate of one a month. In many cases, the fee for the demolition by the city’s Streets & Parks Department was attached as a lien on the property or charged directly to the homeowner.
City crews continue their demolition work this month, although in many cases the removal of dilapidated buildings is carried out by request of the homeowner, who pays a fee for the job. One such property was a structure at 1105 Matamoros Street, which department head Robbie Thomas reported to councilors had been demolished at the owner’s expense.
The city’s new code compliance officer said in an interview last week that she agrees with the community’s desire to see Cotulla’s neighborhoods improved by council action to remove abandoned vehicles and clear derelict buildings.
“The demolition plans that the council made last year are on hold, pending an official council vote to condemn them,” Fonseca said on Thursday. “We need that motion from the council.
“I have found many issues to address, related to code compliance, that I believe are in the public interest and have overall public support,” Fonseca added. “I hope the city will organize a workshop for the council, so that we can establish priorities and put our action plans into motion. The public will be educated in what options are open to us, for example with regard to abandoned vehicles, and I think we can work together to make progress on this.”
Fonseca said she has seen early success with her communications regarding code compliance. Letters sent to homeowners regarding vehicles and overgrown lots, she said, resulted in swift action.
“We give people time to comply, and the people have complied,” the officer said. “Vehicles were moved and efforts were made to clear up some properties. I find that very encouraging.”
Failure to comply with city ordinances, however, will result in action against repeat violators, she added.
“We aren’t playing around with it,” Fonseca said. “People will see that we are enforcing the ordinances, and I think they will take action to clear up their properties before we have to contact them about it.”
Councilors indicated last week that they believe the city may do more to help residents maintain their properties, and removal of heavy trash and brush was again offered as a solution.
Cotulla residents may dispose of bulky waste at the city’s collection station on FM 624, which is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In addition, the city hosts its popular ‘Trash-o-Rama’ days at least three times a year at Plaza Florita, where residents may bring bulky trash, appliances, wood and metal, construction debris and car tires for disposal in a drive-through service.
Sanitation department head Mel Martinez told councilors last week that city residents had disposed of several tons more waste at the collection station in August than in July, a statistic that he said indicates Cotullans have begun taking action to clean up their properties.
Both Martinez and Thomas have reported to councilors that residents have disposed of more than 200 car tires on each of the city’s special trash collection days and that hundreds of tires have been taken to the station on FM 624.
Councilors agreed, however, that some residents are unable to manage their properties or haul off bulky waste.
Councilor Tanis Lopez asked again that the city consider offering more help to the elderly. He suggested last week that a municipal committee could oversee a special assistance program.
Wright said the city is considering launching a regular curbside pickup service for bulky waste.
“We have done it in the past, when people ask,” Mayor Javier Garcia said. “But we haven’t gone onto private property. The Streets Department has also gone in and helped with downed trees. The city has not helped actually clean yards before. I have to caution us not to step into private property.
“There are very few Trash-o-Ramas, and the elderly don’t have the means to go out there,” the mayor added, “but we have been helping as much as we can.”
In related code compliance action, City Hall has confirmed that several ‘No Trucks’ signs have been ordered and will be posted on residential streets to prevent heavy vehicles from traveling on newly paved roads that are not rated for large commercial vehicles.
School zone road closures will also return to areas around the Frank Newman Middle School and former Ramirez/Burks Elementary campus, where children frequently cross the street to neighboring school facilities. A request for the daytime closures was made by Cotulla ISD Interim Superintendent Dr. Jack Seals and approved unanimously by council members present at the Sept. 19 meeting.