Will deputies have to turn in badges? 

Grassroots group faces budget crunch

Tanya Mitchell last week stood in front of a west Atlanta house that she had brought to the attention of city housing code inspectors. A few months ago, the Hollywood Avenue property was run-down, abandoned and being lived in by vagrants, drug users and prostitutes. But on Friday, the yellow arm of an earth-moving machine scooped up the house's bricks and broken-board remains and deposited them into a waiting dump truck.

From the time Mitchell cited the house for violating code, it took about seven months before the city moved to tear it down. She wouldn't have even known that she could make such a change without the Neighborhood Deputies Code Enforcement Task Force.

Neighborhood Deputies educates residents in largely low-income communities about housing code violations -- how to spot them and what can be done. It gives citizens an opportunity to take charge of their own neighborhoods. That same program also has been instrumental in expanding the city's meager code enforcement corps and in lobbying for the standardization of the city's method for cataloguing housing code violations.

But with the current City Hall budget crisis, complete with a $45 million budget shortfall that's growing every day, Neighborhood Deputies soon may be no more. The irony is that Neighborhood Deputies is exactly the kind of initiative - low cost with a potential for a big return - you'd think the city would need during a recession, the kind of program that pulls neighborhoods out of chaos.

But the Neighborhood Deputies initiative is not federally mandated, and during a time when city department heads will have to look to cut non-essential programs, the Neighborhood Deputies Code Enforcement Task Force becomes a likely target. It doesn't help that its first full-time coordinator, Terri Copeland, recently left her $30,000-per-year post to run for City Council.

The task force started in 1995, as an outgrowth of the Jimmy Carter-affiliated Atlanta Project to improve the city's understaffed housing code enforcement efforts. Over 200 people now belong to the program, and have been tutored about how they can cite properties violating code -- anything from overgrown lots to abandoned homes. It costs a modest sum to run, about $80,000 per year, and that pays for a full-time coordinator and outreach.

Joyce Sheperd, who founded the program and was honored by Common Cause, a national government watchdog group, for her efforts on behalf of Neighborhood Deputies, says she has been told that the program may be axed. Carl Smart, who heads the Bureau of Neighborhood Conservation, is being told to present a balanced budget, Sheperd says, and the Neighborhood Deputies Task Force may not be in it.

Smart could not be reached for comment last week, and did not return phone calls Monday.

Sheperd says she's heard that the program is a "fringe benefit."

But she says one of the weaknesses of the program has been not having enough people to handle and coordinate all the complaints and outreach initiatives. "If anything, we need to expand," Sheperd says.

Neighborhood Deputies is important for the obvious reason that it helps clean up neighborhoods -- both aesthetically and from a public safety standpoint -- without relying on an expensive bureaucracy. It allows residents to deal directly with code violators. The program also "gives a community a sense of power," says District 12 City Councilman Derrick Boazman. Unlike wealthy communities where residents have an expectation that their government should be working for them, and they have the political clout to make their voices heard, people who have grown up in poor communities often don't believe there's anything they can do to improve their circumstances.

"These people are on the short end of a lot of sticks," says Larry Keating, an urban planning professor at Georgia Tech. And "getting government to be responsive in low-income areas is tough."

Sheperd told Smart she would lobby to keep the program going and funded, and there are City Council members who will back her.

Boazman says Neighborhood Deputies is exactly the kind of "more bang for your buck" program that shouldn't be cut. "There's going to be belt-tightening," Boazman says, but he's told Sheperd, "I will make sure to do everything I can to keep the money for the program in the budget."

The $80,000 it takes to run Neighborhood Deputies would pay for just two housing inspectors, while the program is able to put what amounts to hundreds of code enforcers on the street, Boazman says.

"I was startled, and I will certainly fight that," says Post 2 Councilwoman Julia Emmons about learning that there is a possibility of a program shutdown. "That would be going in the wrong direction. It's idiotic. [The Neighborhood Deputies] are our eyes and ears."

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