The construction slowdown means Modesto isn't spending as much money on reviewing new building plans, so officials want to put those dollars to better use battling blight.
The city wants to shift $30,000 in its building safety budget to the Neighborhood Preservation Unit, the team that cleans up vacant properties and other nuisances.
The number of empty homes in Stanislaus County has soared 80 percent in two years, according to a recent study by the University of the Pacific.
Vacant houses are eyesores. They can also be dangerous. The house where two firefighters were injured in a roof collapse last week was empty for two years, though it was occupied at the time of the fire. Fire officials are investigating whether squatters may have caused the roof collapse by removing structural supports.
The $30,000 would give the Neighborhood Preservation Unit more muscle. Right now, the unit's $500,000 budget covers administrative costs such as sending notices to homeowners who violate city codes, Chief Building Official Will Crew said. The $30,000 would be used to tear down dangerous buildings, secure vacant houses and remove graffiti. The city would recoup those costs through property liens or special tax assessments.
"If there's no owner other than a bank, it's not going to get taken care of," Crew said. "At some point, we as a city need to take care of that problem. We want to make sure we're protecting the citizens."
The budgeting change is one of several new strategies the Neighborhood Preservation Unit wants to use this year. Others include:
Working with volunteers: Budget cuts have reduced the Neighborhood Preservation Unit from eight to five code enforcement officers.
Volunteers can't work with code enforcement officers on private property, but they can serve as the city's eyes and ears, reporting problems on their block, Crew said. "We want them to be advocates for the neighborhood and be good neighbors as well," Crew said. "It's not just reporting or spying on your neighbor, it's taking ownership of your neighborhood."
Creating a database of vacant houses: If code enforcement officers find a vacant foreclosed home, they'll contact the bank that owns it and have them register the house with the city. Then code enforcement staff can keep tabs on the house and give information about the property to police and fire.
Rapid-response policy: The city tries to respond to every code enforcement complaint within 24 hours. But some complaints need a faster response than others.
The city is developing a system to organize complaints so potential dangers get addressed first. For example, if a neighbor reports a foul smell and rodents running in and out of a house, it could signal a public health risk. A shopping cart in a driveway doesn't.
Shifting the $30,000 and adopting other new strategies don't require City Council approval, but city staff want council input before they start on the new plan. That should happen in February or March.