Columns, Community, News

Litter… Has layers

(WARRENSBURG, Mo.) – I’m frustrated about what I perceive as an issue with litter and trash in Warrensburg. I’ve explained what I’ve seen, how much I’ve seen, and I don’t think I’m without a case.

Until last week, that’s all I had: my own observations and the statistics I was able to obtain just by being a citizen of Warrensburg.

As it turns out, after getting in touch with Mayor Bryan Jacobs, City Manager Harold Stewart, and code enforcement inspector Ray Almaguer, there are many things to consider regarding litter.

I reported there were no citations issued for littering through Aug. 30. Although true, it reveals very little.

What that number doesn’t show is that our police department has been understaffed for a while.

Since Aug. 30, I have been trying to get in touch with someone from the Warrensburg Police Department, but apart from a voicemail I received from Chief Rich Lockhart on Tuesday, Sept. 5, while I was in class, I have not been able to.

Stewart said understaffing forces the police department to further prioritize the calls they receive and the issues to which they respond.

He also said the lack of citations doesn’t show the number of times police may have simply issued an offender a warning and tried to work with them instead.

Stewart pointed out that there is a focus on garnering a positive relationship between the police department and the community.

“Every time someone is written a ticket, it can demean good public relations,” he said.

Is it worth creating that rift – or widening it – over a candy bar wrapper?

Along those lines, Jacobs asked me what turned out to be a deceptively complex question:

“Do you want police stopping people for dropping a bottle on the ground?”

My initial answer was yes. Easy.

But then I thought about it.

What if the officer is driving? Do they stop, get out, and ticket that person? It seems a little much, but I guess it’d be OK if the officer wasn’t otherwise occupied.

What if they were driving in the other direction? Do they turn around? Do they perform an action-movie style U-turn in the middle of the street? What if the person runs? Does the officer give chase?

Over a bottle?

Beyond the police, there is Almaguer, the only code enforcement inspector for the city. He responds to ordinance infractions.

When a nuisance is reported, Almaguer sends a notice. Everyone responds differently, but he said the notice can be all that’s needed.

“Normally, they’ll clean up their area,” he said.

If they don’t, they are given an official 10-day warning, which gives them 10 days to resolve the issue.

If they still don’t, they get turned over to the prosecuting attorney and the case goes to court. That is time-consuming and expensive.

“You have to pay the prosecutor, the municipal judge, court staff,” Stewart said. “There’s officers providing security, and they may testify. You have to pay staff to do initial investigations and testify.”

Another consideration is the rights of citizens. They must be given time to comply with the warnings issued, and they are protected by due process, which means it can be a while between the time the initial warning is issued and the time a resolution is reached.

“It can take months,” Stewart said. “Sometimes, it can take a year to 18 months.”

For just one case, the city is paying people the whole time for several months.

I asked why Almaguer was the only code enforcement inspector in a city with a population of more than 18,000.

“How much staff can you afford to have?” Jacobs said. “Do we have enough staff? No. But personnel is the most expensive thing in your budget.”

It isn’t as simple as hiring a few more code enforcement inspectors. If there isn’t money in the budget, it doesn’t matter if it’s a perceived need or not – it can’t happen.

The city has adapted.

“We’ve trained staff to look out for these things and alert Ray,” Stewart said. “He’s not the only one.”

In lieu of city officials or police officers, wouldn’t signs discouraging littering help?

Maybe not.

“First, signs are really expensive,” Stewart said. “They also have a history in this area of disappearing or being damaged. Second, signs can be ignored. There are signs up around Lions Lake that say not to feed the ducks and the geese; there are people that go there specifically to do that. Third, enforcement still requires an officer to be there to enforce it.”

He said that with other projects that aren’t being completed because of a lack of funding, tracking down funding for such signage isn’t something the city is willing to do right now.

That’s fair.

Especially now that I know.

I also know that Almaguer voluntarily organizes city clean-ups during his off hours, simply because it helps. And after my initial frustration with not being able to contact anyone, Jacobs met with me for over an hour on a Friday night, and Stewart and Almaguer met with me for over an hour on the following Tuesday, giving me enough information for this and future stories.

It isn’t apathy on the city’s part that is causing this issue.

Even so, the city’s ability to control this issue is limited by the same two things that limit everything: time and money. Without the willingness to change our own behaviors, this problem can get worse. Quickly.

At the end of every day, whether there are signs or not, whether there is police action or not, whether there are 100 code enforcement officers or just one, the responsibility of keeping our community clean falls on us as citizens.

The litter that accumulates on our streets and our sidewalks – every bottle, can, fast-food bag and obscure item that defies comprehension – is a result of a general carelessness and disregard for the effects of our actions over things that we were content to carry when they were full but inexplicably find too cumbersome to tote around when they were empty.

There can’t be too much blame cast upon the city for this. Perhaps they can do more; but, really, they shouldn’t have to do anything at all.

The actual cost of littering will be the next subject I’ll shine light on.

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