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Picking ice from city takes a while

DEMOPOLIS – Cleaning up the city has become serious business, with an emphasis on removal of dilapidated buildings, weed control and litter removal.

Currently under way is the condemnation of three houses in the city with the aim of tidying up the town, but Building Inspector Junior Brooker likens keeping the city clean to an iceberg.

“It’s a problem all over the city,” he said. “It’s like an iceberg – you get a little tip, then another little tip.”

Brooker, who oversees the city’s street department, said keeping the city clean is full-time work, and then some. From debris to old appliances to abandoned cars, there are three city crews – each responsible for a third of the city – on rubbish detail.

Council member Woody Collins has long been an advocate of a cleaner Demopolis.

“I’ve been pushing to clean up for a long time. It makes the city a more professional looking community,” he said.

Collins, sometimes to the point of taking some good-natured ribbing, said he’s continued to keep the issue before the council. Some of his badgering has evidently paid off.

“One of my pet peeves has always been litter and the council has been able to focus on abandoned homes, cars, and overgrown lots. We have accomplished a lot on that front and are making great strides,” he said.

The amount of litter concerns Brooker, too.

“It’s worse in the summer months when people are riding with their windows down,” he said.

But before mowing crews can attack grass, litter has to be picked up to avoid the creation of bush-hog confetti. Along major routes within the city – such as U.S. Highway 80 and Alabama Highway 43, the city employs the use of a John Deere Gator utility vehicle the council purchased to speed litter pickup. Other routes get a pickup truck. One employee works overtime to keep the department ahead of the litter.

The little stuff gives way to larger problems to solve. Wednesday through Friday, debris is picked up with the aid of a back hoe and dump truck. The city doesn’t own a “limb loader,” a hydraulic boom that picks up piles of limbs, leaves and other refuse. Missing from the city’s inventory too is a vacuum truck that could assist street crews in cleaning.

Trailers also get pressed into service all week so city crews can haul away debris.

Garbage collection in the city is handled by Arrow Disposal Service, which according Brooker, is responsible for picking up “white goods.” In addition to household garbage, the company removes old appliances and other smaller refuse items.

With rain, grasses and weeds get out of hand quickly, Brooker said. Property owners can’t keep lawns cut and city crews have been having trouble keeping their own areas clipped.

“We had our lawn tractors stuck trying to cut in between the crepe myrtles on Eight,” Brooker admits. “The rain makes it hard on everybody to keep weeds cut.”

Still, overgrown lots and trashy lots could raise ad valorem taxes for a property owner who doesn’t voluntarily clean up the property. By law, the city can clean up a lot and then add the clean-up cost to the property tax bill, or contract with a private entity for cleanup, demolition and removal of a dilapidated structure.

“We’ll write a property a letter, and then if nothing is done we turn them over to the city attorney,” Brooker said.

An owner so notified has just 30 days to respond to the letter or get the lot cleaned up, or 90 days to tear down a dilapidated structure.

In the past 15 years, Brooker estimates about 200 structures have been “taken down.” In addition to the three properties currently identified, he said another 50-60 houses are targeted.

“We’ve had some to tear down the structure, but not remove the debris,” Brooker said.

Rick Manley, the city’s attorney, handles the formal process for the city council.

Of the three properties currently slated for action, one on Highway 43 South, is in negotiations to sell the property to an adjacent landowner who has agreed to clean up the lot; one has a time extension until July 15 and the third is in a 30-day response window.

“Many times these structures are owned by people who are absentee owners,” he said.

Collins admits keeping the city clean can be a thorny issue, but said education is the key to the long-term solution.

“One of my focuses is education. I think all these teachers will tell you education goes a long way toward social skills … if you can get into the schools and teach kids about litter and to pick up after themselves, then you’ll go a long way to solving the problem on litter,” he said.