Gainesville Daily Register

May 10, 2013

Task force to clean up, improve city safety

By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer

Gainesville — Having brought visible progress to one area of Gainesville, a recently formed civic improvement committee has sights set on another.

The “Joint Neighborhood Task Force” had its official launch earlier this year as an initiative by city officials seeking to boost code enforcement in neighborhoods with properties given to decay.

“Our mission is to improve the visual appearance and safety of neighborhoods,” City Marshal Keith Rigsby said Thursday. “That’s kind of it, in a nutshell.”

The task force includes Rigsby, Chief of Police Steven Fleming, Community Services Director John Noblitt, Fire Marshal Jody Henry, City Manager Barry Sullivan and Public Services Director Ron Sellman.

Their project began with the city’s oversight of demolition of the former Gainesville Junior High School building on North Denton Street. This coincided with a local “pitch-in” cleanup of nearby occupied homes, and the total razing of several structurally unsound houses that were already abandoned and used at random for criminal purposes.

In late 2012, Mayor Jim Goldsworthy said up to 200 homes in Gainesville city limits were in need of demolition, and by this summer, dozens of them will be gone — razings of roughly $4,300 each, made possible by increased tax revenue.

And as those homes are investigated and considered for demolition, the task force merges the skills of code enforcement, crime prevention, street maintenance, sanitation and fire safety.

“I personally look at it as a progressive move from the city to join people from different specializations,” Rigsby said Thursday. “We’re joining forces to help get things cleaned up.”

The marshal said the group’s next target is the “Hillside neighborhood,” which includes the building at 1410 O’Neal Street formerly used as Gainesville Memorial Hospital. The area shares some of the same code issues as the neighborhood near the former junior high school, and addressing them continues the force’s directive to approach the problem one area at a time.

“It’s south of Highway 82, east of Grand Avenue, north of O’Neal and west of Hillside Drive,” Rigsby said about the area. “The calls for service there have been through the roof, with gang activity, drug-related calls, assaults and fights and all that. We’re teaming with every entity we can to help.”

As reported in a recent Register story, the former hospital building itself faces city demolition unless a Dallas-based developer makes good on plans to purchase that property and renovate it into an assisted-living facility.

But even without that abandoned structure, reportedly often used as a squatter’s haven, the “Hillside neighborhood” regularly presents problems for law enforcement.

“We haven’t really sunk our teeth into it yet,” Rigsby said, adding that it was always next on the list. “There’s a small number of people who can cause big problems for a particular area.”

Gainesville Police Department is currently making use of software that maps areas within city limits that produce the most requests for assistance — crime reports or calls for help. Rigsby said the software generates a list of “hot spots” that reveal the most regular concentration of police calls and will determine exactly where the department needs to boost patrol volume.

And during those police calls to neighborhoods in the task force purview, Rigsby added, officers will broaden their examination on the homes they visit.

“They’ll be looking to see that everything is safe in that house, that everything’s up to code and that there are no kinds of structural issues,” he said. “They’re not invasively going in there. But the police officers will know what to look for, like a sewer leak or sewage pouring out.”

Crime enforcement aside, Rigsby said residents in any area of the city can become part of the solution by preventing code violations in their own neighborhoods.

“The citizens of this community can help the most by being good neighbors and keeping their properties as nice and clean as possible,” he said. “But certainly we need them to call if they need us. We’re geared up and ready to go help them out.”