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Nuisance complaints in Iowa City jump in 2019, mostly thanks to intense weather

Harsh winter, new app behind uptick in problems reported to city

Matt Wagner, an Iowa City housing inspector assistant, on Monday follows up on a complaint where he’d notified residents mopeds could not be parked on the grass. Iowa City reporting receiving 5,555 complaints in fiscal year 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Matt Wagner, an Iowa City housing inspector assistant, on Monday follows up on a complaint where he’d notified residents mopeds could not be parked on the grass. Iowa City reporting receiving 5,555 complaints in fiscal year 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Iowa City residents were not shy about airing their grievances over the last year.

City departments report receiving 5,555 complaints in fiscal year 2019, which ended June 30.

Stan Laverman, Iowa City’s senior housing inspector, said the complaints ranged from potholes to trash not being picked up to barking dogs.

The number of complaints is sharply up over the 2,855 received in fiscal 2018 and the 2,924 received in fiscal 2017.

Laverman attributes the increase to citizens becoming more comfortable with the ICgovXpress system, which allows citizens to complain, ask questions, request services or report nuisance.

Citizens can use an app or the website to register a complaint, which Laverman said accounts for roughly 75 percent of the complaints received by the city.

“I think you’re seeing those numbers go up as more people become aware of the system and use it,” he said.

A majority of the complaints — 3,783 of the 5,555 — end up being handled by Neighborhood Services, which addresses housing, zoning and nuisance issues, such as tall grass and weeds, cars parked in yards and garbage.

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But the biggest driver of complaints — 1,297 in the past fiscal year — was snow-covered sidewalks.

“Snow was terrible this year,” Laverman said.

The harsh winter is reflected in the much lower, snow-related totals in the previous two years — 462 fiscal 2018 and 326 in fiscal 2017.

Handling complaints

When the city receives a complaint, an inspector is dispatched to confirm the complaint is legitimate and a tag is left on the door, notifying the resident of the violation.

For snow on the sidewalk, cars parked on a lawn or a trash issue, residents have 24 to 48 hours to address the problem.

The city gives residents seven days to fix complaints about tall grass and weeds, Laverman said.

The city, he said, isn’t interested in being punitive. It just wants to see issues addressed.

“Honestly, what we’re looking for is some acknowledgment of it,” he said. “Some issues, they probably didn’t happen overnight, and we have no expectation it will be taken care of overnight. ... We’re very comfortable working with people to gain long-term compliance.”

Weather impact

Laverman said it was difficult for the city to enforce its snow ordinance — having sidewalks cleared 24 hours after the end of snowstorm — this past winter, when heavy snow fell every two to three days during some stretches.

Similarly, the ordinance wasn’t imposed during the polar vortex, when temperatures dropped below zero and stayed there, he said.

“We have a hard time compelling someone to be out in that weather trying to remove snow,” he said. “There were a few days there we weren’t enforcing the ordinance to its full extent.”

The weather also played a role in tall grass complaints this spring. Persistent rains meant the city had a “great growing season,” Laverman said.

“Lawns got tall,” he said. “There were times if you weren’t diligent about mowing your lawn, it quickly went over 10 inches.”

Laverman tracks grass, weed and tree complaints by calendar year.

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Through the middle of July, Neighborhood Services had responded to 466 such complaints. In all of 2018, the city recorded were 585 grass, weed and tree complaints, up from 399 in 2017.

Coralville, too

Iowa City is not the only local community to see the impact of weather on complaints.

The city of Coralville received 203 snow complaints this calendar year, more than double the 80 complaints received in 2018. Only one complaint came in 2017, when Coralville had only 6 inches of snow between January and March.

“(Weather) is a huge indicator,” said Ellen Habel, Coralville assistant city administrator. “2019 was a really terrible winter, so you can see that reflected” in the numbers.

Overall, Coralville has received 303 nuisance complaints so far this year, Habel said, compared to 306 complaints 2018 and 191 in 2017.

More proactive

Weather is not the only factor driving complaints.

Laverman said the Iowa City Council also directed the department to be more proactive in enforcing nuisance violations after a change in the state law prevented cities from regulating rental occupancies based on familial status.

Since rental properties could not be regulated by who lived there, the Legislature directed cities to regulate properties by any nuisances created by the occupants.

Iowa City hired another inspector to handle more nuisance complaints.

“If you could keep those properties looking the same, the effects of the occupancy go down,” Laverman said. “If you’re seeing a lot more trash and ill-kept yards, it’s not a desirable place to live.”

Despite the high number of complaints in fiscal 2019, the city filed relatively few citations — 219 — against residents failing to address a nuisance issue.

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The city, Laverman said, prefers to avoid issuing citations. Going to court can extend an issue for weeks, he said.

“If we can work with them, have communication and work to have it resolved in two weeks to a month, that’s better than issuing a citation that’s going to extend that by four to eight weeks,” he said. “The vast majority come into voluntary compliance.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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