RICHMOND -- Teresa Tingle watched as four of her code enforcement workers hacked at a dusty tangle of weeds and shrubs in the front yard of an empty white ranch-style house in the 300 block of 35th Street.
"Thanks for getting to this," said neighbor Renee Stanford as she rose from her parked car.
"Yeah, we're trying to stay up on it, but there's a lot of work to do," answered Tingle, a supervisor for the city's Code Enforcement Department.
Episodes like this play out daily for Tingle and her abatement workers, who crisscross the city trying to keep up with the scores of abandoned and dilapidated properties that still mar Richmond's neighborhoods.
And the city's budget struggles mean that the problem could get worse. Richmond passed a budget on July 1 that included deep cuts to virtually all departments, but Code Enforcement was hit particularly hard, and more cuts may be coming.
The department's budget was reduced from $4.3 million to $3.3 million, according to Director Tim Higares, thanks to a $1 million cut in the city's subsidy for its operations, despite the fact that about half the overall budget comes from fines and other fees levied by the department. The city remains about $6 million in the red, as City Manager Bill Lindsay works to get concessions from public employee unions and holds out hopes that tax revenues improve in the coming year. The 29 workers in Code Enforcement were spared layoff slips for now, but that could change if negotiations between city management and workers break down. If that happens, 11 of the unit's workers could be laid off, which Code Enforcement officials say would drastically sap their effectiveness.
"Every week we have meetings about the budget," said Hugo Mendoza, a 37-year-old abatement supervisor. "My workers are worried. Morale is low."
Henry Powell, a 43-year-old abatement worker who removed weeds at the house on 35th Street on Thursday, said he and his colleagues are under a cloud of uncertainty as they address a backlog of work.
"It's hard to stay positive, sometimes, not knowing if you are going to keep your job," he said. "I have a family to support."
Richmond, a city with aging housing stocks, poverty and blight, relies on 12 workers to do the unglamorous job of dealing with the worst property conditions in the city. Four handle illegal dumping, two battle graffiti, four more tackle weed and landscape abatement and another two are in charge of boarding up and fencing off blighted property.
The housing crisis, while improving, has hit Richmond hard, and foreclosures and high property turnover took a toll on landscapes and structures throughout the city. Racing around to board up houses and keep weeds at bay is a herculean task in a 52-square mile city of more than 106,000 residents.
Workers also pull about 30 tons of garbage per week off city streets, mostly in the alleys of the low-income Iron Triangle neighborhood, which is a magnet for illegal dumping. Starting wages for the abatement crews are $51,600.
"The work is hard, and it's nasty," Mendoza said as he stood amid trash and waist high weeds covering a vacant lot.
Code Enforcement, which was moved into the police department from public works several years ago in part because Police Chief Chris Magnus believes its work is key to reducing crime, had high-profile proponents in its corner as it lobbied during the recent budget negotiations to avoid layoffs.
"In my mind, Code Enforcement is a critical part of the city's public safety mission," Lindsay wrote in an email. "Deeper reductions to the Code Enforcement unit would adversely impact the city's response in dealing with blight ... (and) blight begets more blight."
But critics of Code Enforcement, led by Councilman Corky Boozé, say the department is top-heavy with managers, harasses property owners and has plenty of budget fat to cut. He pointed out that only 12 of the 29 employees in the unit physically work at fixing blighted conditions, while others are in management, parking enforcement, administrative work and supervisory roles. Boozé is currently locked in a legal dispute with Code Enforcement over noncompliant properties in the city owned by his former girlfriend.
"I lost my battle to cut it down," Boozé said, referring to the budget discussions. "But I'm not done. We need to cut Higares' job and some of their supervisors and attorneys."
Meanwhile, the work to keep the gritty town looking good is never ending. On the same day workers tidied up the yard of the vacant house on 35th Street, other crews cleared sidewalks near the Pullman Point Apartment complex and secured a house near Maricopa Avenue and 24th Street. The house had been abandoned since its owner died a few years ago, Tingle said.
"When we first came in, there was a deceased man and cat feces up to here," she said, reaching her hand down to ankle level. "Nobody takes responsibility for the house, so it's our job to take care of it."
Due to severe structural degradation, the house will soon be demolished by Code Enforcement crews, Tingle said. Neighbors watched as Tingle's workers inspected the house, where fresh trash had been dumped on the property.
"We wear a lot of hats, because we have a lot to do," she said.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.
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