ITHACA, NY – Some Ithacans have complained of racking up hundreds of dollars of fines for seemingly minor property maintenance infractions, often getting multiple tickets for the same offense and not getting notice until multiple tickets have been issued.

Ithaca resident David Gallahan related one such example during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting. Gallahan reported that he had received a notice of a fine based on the fact that one of his tenants had snow tired stacked up on their property. He was informed he had six months to deal with the issue.

Gallahan says he was out of town during that time and when he returned he found that he had gotten a new ticket every three days for the same offense, starting with a $25 ticket and increasing more and more with each subsequent ticket, adding up to hundreds of dollars. Gallahan said he only ended up paying the first two, totaling $75, but still felt the amount was too high.

Another resident said she received over a thousand dollars worth of fines — over a dozen tickets — during the course of a few weeks. She said the biggest issue was that the tickets could be held up in Tompkins County court so that in some cases a person could be assessed multiple tickets before they are even notified of their first offense.

Are the city’s solutions working?

Ithaca Director of Code Enforcement Mike Niechwiadowicz updated the committee on the impact of recent changes to the program, which were made a couple months ago.

Niechwiadowicz said that in addition to lowering the fine amounts, they’ve also changed the procedure to provide for a 24-hour notice of violation before writing the first ticket. An email is also sent to the offending party — however, a person must be signed up through the city’s mailing service to receive these emails.

Niechwiadowicz reported that the change has resulted in more people getting warnings, presumably because they didn’t fear immediately being ticketed, but people responded to the warnings resulting in less overall tickets being written.

Alderperson Cynthia Brock expressed concern that the email list wasn’t enough, as many people aren’t signed up for it and were still receiving multiple tickets before they were even aware of an issue. The information on how to sign up to the email list can be found on residents’ water bills, but Brock felt it could be clearer.

Niechwiadowicz said that the city had tried a system about 10 years ago where the person assessing the property would place a physical tag on the property to inform the owner, but it had some issues.

“Different tenants got the impression that if they didn’t get the tag, that they wouldn’t be ticketed. So the person at that time was chased off the property, had things thrown at them,” he said. “The landlords complained that they didn’t get the notice from their tenants. There were issues also of going onto private property, our current property maintenance person has been accused of going on private property and threatened with lawsuits, arrest, physically chased…”

Prosecutor Bob Sarachan, who ultimately deals with adjudicating the tickets, says that he ensures that everyone who gets a ticket and deals with him, he ensures they get on the email list, so it becomes a one-time-only problem.

Brock questioned if that also meant that people who weren’t on the email list who came in with “stacks of tickets” could get some or most of them waived.

“I’m a lawyer so I can’t say things like that,” Sarachan said. “What I can say is, before people go to trial can choose to talk to me. Usually, if somebody comes that would be a reason for me to say, ‘Oh you have $300 in tickets for one bag of garbage, but it came in the mail and you didn’t know about it’ … that would not be uncommon.”

Overall, Sarachan reported that the new system has resulted in “exponentially” fewer complaints and frustration, particularly among landlords who own multiple properties.

Residents can sign up for the exterior property maintenance email notification system here.

(Featured photo courtesy of Department of Public Works documents)

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.