Tom Nehring says he knows Memphis Code Enforcement considers him a thorn in their side. He's been calling and reporting properties for violations in his East Memphis neighborhood for the past six years.
But Nehring's feelings toward code enforcement are a little thorny too. The properties he's reported -- they've been the same ones over and over.
"We had one house where a guy was parking in the yard. It should have been simple," said Nehring. "I make one phone call; code enforcement takes care of it; and that's the end of it."
Only it wasn't. Last week, not one but two City Council committees discussed how to keep citizens off the grass. Former council member Janet Hooks wanted to discuss long-running violations, while in another committee, Councilman E.C. Jones was upset about truck drivers parking their rigs in their yards.
"I support anyone trying to make a living -- sometimes I think I should be driving a truck -- but we can't allow tractor trailer trucks to destroy our neighborhoods," he said.
If the truck is parked on a residential street, the police can write a ticket. But if the truck is parked on private property -- even if it's in someone's front yard -- the police have to call code enforcement.
"Part of the problem," said Memphis police director Larry Godwin, "is that these are high-dollar pieces of equipment. [Drivers would] just as soon pay the $50 fine. [Code enforcement] can cite them, but they don't care."
The City Council took on code enforcement a few years ago, closing loopholes and increasing the budget. Only, maybe the solutions didn't work. Violations on nights and weekends, for example, still seem to be a problem.
In one of Jones' examples, a truck driver comes home every Friday night and parks in his yard. The neighbors call code enforcement, but by the time code enforcement gets there Monday morning, the truck is gone.
Nehring has seen similar incidents in his neighborhood near Cherry and New Willow roads when code enforcement investigates a complaint and when they are dealing with habitual offenders.
"Let's say they write him up. He has 30 days to move his car. They check; the car's gone. Okay, case closed," said Nehring. "But then he comes home and puts the car back in the yard."
Which leaves the city looking for new ways to fight illegal parking. Barbara Swearengen Holt wants to tow trucks on the third citation. Carol Chumney suggests a new citation process, similar to that used by police. And Robert Lipscomb, the new chief financial officer for the city, as well as the head of the Housing and Community Development division, says a task force is in the process of submitting new ordinance recommendations to the council. Code enforcement is also replacing its antiquated card system with handheld computers and a searchable database.
"Some people see a car in the yard and they say, what's the big deal?" said Nehring. "I try to explain. Mr. Smith might only park one car in his yard. But when Mr. Smith does it, then the people down the street think it's okay to park four cars in their yard. I don't want to enjoin someone from using their property, but at some point I have to sell this house."
Last week, I drove through Nehring's neighborhood. He's lived there for about 10 years and says it's "transitional," with a fair number of rental properties. The houses are small but they're cute and seem to be in good condition.
But every five houses or so, there's a car or cars parked in the yard. Oddly, the streets looked wide enough to safely park a vehicle, and often the driveways were completely empty.
"They don't want to get aggressive with homeowners," said Nehring. "They come out and say, well, you're not supposed to be doing that. Don't let us catch you again."
A computerized system should help code enforcement keep track of repeat and habitual offenders. But the important thing will be enforcement.
A city is the sum of its neighborhoods. From last week's discussions, it seems that much of Memphis looks like a parking lot. And for Nehring and his neighbors, that equals about $20,000.
"There was a house on my street for sale for $61,000. This month it sold for $40,000, and it's a beautiful house," said Nehring. "I think it's great that [code enforcement] will have the technology to do their job, but first they have to do the job."