The Public Eye

Records show inconsistent exemptions on Sacramento County fees

Sacramento County has stepped up code enforcement in recent years, but it has shown a willingness to waive fees as complaints from cited property owners have also increased, county officials said and records show.
Sacramento County has stepped up code enforcement in recent years, but it has shown a willingness to waive fees as complaints from cited property owners have also increased, county officials said and records show. Sacramento Bee file

When a Sacramento County code enforcement officer cited Kuni Chevrolet Cadillac this year, the dealership’s general manager, Brian Castonguay, fired off an email to the county complaining that he never received a warning about the sign-ordinance violation.

The county reversed the $491 fee.

In recent years, the county has stepped up its code enforcement, trying to improve the appearance of certain business districts and residential neighborhoods. But the county has shown a willingness to waive fees as complaints from cited property owners have also increased, county officials said and records show.

The willingness to give some businesses a break has frustrated some former and current code enforcement employees – including a former division head who resigned in January – and has led to claims of favoritism among property owners.

In a yearlong period ending last month, the county waived fees in 271 cases of alleged code violations, according to a county database obtained through a Public Records Act request. Each case typically contains multiple fees, including a standard fee of $470 when an initial notice of violation is issued. Because some of the waivers involve inaccurate fee amounts, it is difficult to say how much money the county forfeited, though it is clearly hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Community Development Director Lori Moss defends the fee waivers, saying that property owners who receive a break must sign a compliance agreement promising to fix the violations. The county agrees to waive fees in only 2 percent of cases, she said.

“Our goal is to get compliance,” she said. “We want to support business, too.”

It’s impossible to quantify the reasons for the waivers because information is missing or not explained fully in the code-enforcement database. Moss said some of the most common reasons are complaints from property owners who are willing to fix their violations; mistakes by an understaffed and inexperienced code enforcement staff; and technical problems with code enforcement’s billing system.

Carl Simpson, who headed the division until taking a similar job with the city of Sacramento in February, said the main reason for waived fees is complaints by property owners. Simpson said he was always reluctant to waive fees but that he received pressure from Moss and other county officials to do so, which is one reason he left the county.

“It was never just some private person they were worried about,” Simpson said. “It was always some developer or business owner.”

Moss said Simpson did not make those complaints when he worked for the county. She denied pressuring him to waive fees. Moss conceded that some property owners have been treated differently when it comes to granting waivers. Churches and other nonprofits are more likely to get a break because they don’t have money to pay fees, she said.

The county has also handled car dealers differently, after receiving a flurry of complaints when Kuni and other dealers were cited in an enforcement sweep in Arden Arcade earlier this year. Car dealers have more problems with code enforcement because they often use flags, banners and other signs that aren’t permanent, in violation of county ordinance, officials said.

Castonguay, the Kuni GM, said he encouraged Moss to take a more cooperative approach.

“With all the taxation and revenue we bring into the county, they should work with us,” he said. “That’s exactly what I told Lori.”

According to emails from code enforcement supervisor Jared Wickliff, county management directed code enforcement officers to stop citing new-car dealers and issue citations only to used-car dealers. In one email, Wickliff said the change was “based on phone calls from violators that are coming in and getting to senior management.”

Moss confirmed the policy but said the change was needed because code enforcement did not have enough resources to keep up with new- and used-car dealers. She said used-car dealers tend to have more violations because they have older properties.

The county’s economic development division has taken responsibility for code violations among new-car dealers. Moss said division employees cannot cite offenders but can work with the dealers to achieve compliance.

In emails to Moss and other county officials, Wickliff said the shift has not worked. On April 8, a month after the policy started, he noted that new-car dealers on Auburn Boulevard and Fulton Avenue were in violation of codes, but code enforcement did not do anything because “we were told to not cite any of the new-car dealers.”

In another email last month, a clerical supervisor for code enforcement said the waivers have added to the “backlash” of complaints from the sign-ordinance enforcement sweeps, with some people not wanting to pay fees because a neighbor did not have to pay, and others complaining that neighbors are allowed to have signs they can’t have.

Larry Laskowski, executive director of the Independent Automobile Dealers Association of California, which represents the used-car industry, said he understands the county’s rationale for the policy. Used-car dealers have less money than new-car dealers, meaning they are more likely to have properties with code violations, he said.

That doesn’t justify the policy, he said: “Anytime you have unfairness in punishment, that’s wrong.”

“It’s called selective enforcement,” Simpson said.

Moss denied that the county’s approach amounts to selective enforcement. She said economic development officials have begun to get new-car dealers to comply with county codes. In some cases, code enforcement officers were brought in to issue violations, she said.

Simpson said Moss and other county managers were willing to waive fees because they don’t want business owners to complain to the Board of Supervisors.

Moss denied the claim, but records show she has waived fees herself in response to intervention from county supervisor staff. In September, the county reversed about $1,800 in fees charged to a Florin Avenue convenience store at Moss’ direction, according to the county’s enforcement database. Moss had met with the business owner and Mamie Yee, when she was chief of staff for then-Supervisor Jimmie Yee.

Yee said the owner had recently bought the store, with the violations, and “wanted to do the right thing ... I just wanted to bring those two together,” she said, referring to the owner and Moss.

Simpson said he was pressured to waive the fees when the owner of a rental property filed an appeal to the Board of Supervisors over a citation for garbage in the front of the property. The property owner argued that he should have been cited under a different code and the garbage did not constitute “junk and rubbish” as the county said, records show.

The appeal was scheduled for a board hearing in June 2014, but it was canceled when the county waived the $490 in fees originally assessed.

“We always had to ask ourselves whether a case was worth the time and the trouble,” Simpson said. “I eventually decided that I could no longer keep working like that.”