Shawnee wants to boost code enforcement but must find funds to do it

Shawnee city staff said they needed an extra employee to handle new citywide efforts on code enforcement and communications with residents. Above, a neighborhood in the northeast corner of the city.

The Shawnee City Council earlier this month unanimously agreed to advance new citywide efforts to improve infrastructure in residential areas, enhance proactive code enforcement and create closer communications with residents.

However,  the governing body decided against exploring financial options to add an employee to support those efforts, and City Manager Nolan Sunderman said it’s “not possible” to pursue the city council’s directive to move forward with those efforts unless they can add staff to do so.

“We just don’t have that focus right now,” said City Manager Nolan Sunderman. “I appreciate Councilmember [Eric] Jenkins’s comments on volunteers, but we’ll have to kind of circle back and see what this looks like, so I wouldn’t expect anything anytime soon.”

In a presentation to the city council committee, city staff recommended exploring the use of federal or city dollars to create a “Neighborhood Liaison” position that would oversee citywide neighborhood improvement efforts.

Nolan Sunderman
City Manager Nolan Sunderman

Staff recommended the possible use of funding sources from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program to partially fund the role.

The motion to explore the creation of the new position failed on a 5-4 margin. Mayor Michelle Distler and councilmembers Eric Jenkins, Mike Kemmling, Kurt Knappen and Tammy Thomas voted in dissent. Councilmembers Jill Chalfie, Lindsey Constance, Lisa Larson-Bunnell and Matt Zimmerman voted in favor.

The city council did agree, however, to consider initiating several efforts on a citywide scale, as an extension from the city’s current efforts toward neighborhoods in the downtown area. While city staff said they lack the resources to expand these efforts, they would include the following:

  • Establish neighborhood partnerships
  • Facilitate and enhance neighborhood communication
  • Publish newsletters for neighborhoods
  • Work with the residents to create a vision for their neighborhood and establish neighborhood organizations
  • Provide opportunity for residents to take an active role in planning for the future of their neighborhoods through Neighborhood Action Plans
  • Provide a forum similar to a Homeowners Association (HOA) for older neighborhoods and even create templates (“HOA’s in a box”) for areas interested in becoming officially organized
  • Establish central point of contact for residents concerns and continue to disseminate information to HOA’s
  • Support block parties, focused neighborhood clean‐ups, and promote City/resident interactions and partnerships
  • Improve neighborhoods through infrastructure improvements, data driven code enforcement and additional coordinating with other departments

Noting the city’s diversity of housing in terms of age, Community Development Director Doug Allmon said the above-mentioned efforts could be duplicated across Shawnee.

Distler and some councilmembers noted their discomfort with using grant funds for staff support, because the funds could be taken away and the city would then have to absorb those costs. Councilmembers also had mixed thoughts on the staff’s proposal, with some who had concerns about spending more money to hire staff, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“To do this at this time, I think this is just a poor time to look at our citizens and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to hire a new liaison position,’ because lots of people have been negatively impacted by this COVID, and many people are still unemployed from it,” Thomas said. “To hear about it would be nice, but I wouldn’t see it on the horizon as a possibility, in my mind, or for my support, to hire someone.”

Others felt that this citywide effort is necessary for improving the quality of life in Shawnee.

“I think the positive benefits of this outweigh the potential risk here,” Zimmerman said. “I really like the idea of the neighborhood liaison because I have a sense that that person is going to be a little bit of that missing communications piece between the city and some of our residents that are not so well connected.”

City staff noted that the average annual award amount for Shawnee’s Community Development Block Grant program is about $265,900. The city could allot up to 20% of those funds (roughly $53,100, based on recent CDBG funds used in recent years), to fund administrative costs. Staff noted that the use of grant funding for administration efforts is common in cities serving populations of 50,000 or more, but it would also reduce the amount of available funds for other projects historically funded by the grant dollars.