Q&A with Onzie Horne 

City Deputy Director of Community Enhancement

Last fall, the city launched a pilot program called "25 Square" to address neighborhoods plagued with overgrown lots, broken windows, litter, potholes, and code violations. Residents in targeted neighborhoods were instructed to walk approximately 25 blocks in their neighborhoods and document problems. Then the city would address them all at once.

The strategy was a big change from the old complaint-driven system, in which city and contractor grounds crews would drive from call to call across the city, rather than focusing four or five days at a time in one community. The pilot was a huge success, and it was recently adopted as the official strategy for mitigating weed overgrowth and blight in the city. Crews began working in Soulsville last week after a trial run in Orange Mound, and they'll move to 15 other targeted areas across the city throughout the growing season. — Bianca Phillips

Flyer: The new strategy seems to rely very heavily on citizen participation.

Onzie Horne: No one knows the community better than the residents. Without their participation, we can't sustain the effort. We can't transform the community. If we clean it, and they're not engaged or committed, then it gets dirty again right away.

They define the priorities. They tell us where the worst lots are, where the vacant houses are, and where vagrants are hiding or sleeping. They define the boundaries for mitigation that's equal to roughly 25 square blocks.

City crews mow the overgrown grass for negligent property owners, but how do you handle code violations or potholes?

We have code enforcement officers inspect every structure and look for code violations, like junky yards or abandoned vehicles. They start a process that requires owners to get into compliance with the code.

They're also looking for potholes, broken curbs, streetlights that are out, alleys that are congested and overgrown, virtually any problem that the city is responsible for mitigating. They gather that data, and we notify the city division that's responsible for that, so they can coordinate their services.

We clean up all the illegal dumps and clean up the tires. We bring the street sweepers in. We coordinate the collection of solid waste on a coordinated basis during those sweeps.

The city gives property owners a few days to clean up before crews move in. How much are they billed if they ignore the problem and allow the city to clean up their mess?

By statute, the rate we charge varies. A city crew can range from $200 to $250 an hour. As it relates to our contractor crews, it's actually the fixed cost of the crew plus an administrative charge. Right now, that's $45 an hour plus the administrative cost.

How is this new strategy better than how the city handled blight before?

The old system was entirely complaint-based. Complaints would come in from citizens and elected officials to the Mayor's Citizen's Service Center. Everything that came in was put onto a roster. We tried to do some routing of crews to affect mitigation, but it was still inefficient, and it involved significant travel of crews to abate the issue. There was little advanced assessment of the needs, so the crews we dispatched had to have the resources and capability and manpower to address what they found when they got there.

Now we assess what we have to mitigate first. We do a total analysis of the 25-square block area. There's no travel time or loading and unloading time because they unload once in the morning and they load in the evening when they finish. They move from lot to lot or house to house.

Do you still take complaints?

We do. The Mayor's Citizen's Service Center takes calls every day. We have separate crews that mitigate those complaint calls. But the object here is to throw heavy concentration of services into the targeted areas. Right now, it takes us about five days to get through a target area.

Does this new strategy save the city money?

It saves the city money, and it costs the city money. Already, it's produced efficiencies so our cost of mitigation has dropped about 80 percent per property. But the challenge is, with this strategy, you have to get everything. Our cost was higher before, but there was so much left undone. We're getting more done at a much lower unit cost. It will involve increasing overall costs, but the return on investment is much higher.


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