Toledo's water meter readers, who visit every home in the city four times a year, soon may be asked to keep an eye out for housing code violations for the city's Department of Neighborhoods.
Embracing an idea offered at his quarterly directors' meeting yesterday, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner told the Department of Public Utilities to require its field personnel to begin passing along code violations they observe.
Water meter readers visit 92,000 homes in Toledo, as well as locations outside of Toledo where city water is distributed.
The idea was offered yesterday by City Council candidate D. Michael Collins, who attended the morning-long quarterly directors' meeting, held at the McMaster Center in the Main Toledo Library, which was open to the public.
Mr. Collins, an independent running in District 2 for the seat being vacated by Councilman Rob Ludeman, said the practice could help the understaffed Department of Neighborhoods and save the city money. He said he didn't envision meter readers writing tickets or discussing code violations with property owners.
"All you need to do is put a code in a machine. The last thing I would want is a meter reader in conflict with a citizen over a housing code violation," Mr. Collins said.
Public Utilities Director Bob Williams initially objected, saying meter readers' work could be made more difficult if they are viewed as "intruders." He said meter readers already are expected to report unsafe situations involving children or senior citizens.
He was quickly overruled by the mayor, who said, "that is a great suggestion. Do it. All they have to do is write an address down. I don't even want any debate about it. Just do it."
Mr. Finkbeiner said meter readers could identify "very obvious decay," and "run-down, ramshackle properties."
The idea of getting more city workers looking out for dilapidated houses, overgrown lots, illegally parked cars, and scattered trash is close to one of Mr. Finkbeiner's top focuses - city cleanliness.
Mr. Finkbeiner recently has said he would like to increase the staff of inspectors in the Department of Neighborhoods, which is 10. Two of those positions are vacant.
Chief of Staff Bob Reinbolt said given the city's $10 million deficit it may not be possible to accomplish the mayor's wish. "I don't see us adding. He's going to have to tell us where to cut," Mr. Reinbolt said.
Kattie Bond, director of the neighborhoods department, said she has requested to fill the two vacancies and to hire as many as four new inspectors in the 2008 budget.
Donald Czerniak, president of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 7, which represents meter readers, said giving them enforcement duties raises issues of safety.
"I don't have a problem with people doing it. It's the retaliation," Mr. Czerniak said, noting that code enforcement inspectors have been victimized by angry property owners on occasion.
Mr. Collins' opponent, Democrat Molly McHugh Branyan, said the idea is worth exploring but also said she was concerned about meter readers' safety.
"I think if people knew they had that capability [to report code violations] ,they'd be looking at them in a different light rather than just reading their meter and going," Mrs. Branyan said.
Mr. Williams said meter readers carry a device on which they record water usage. About 90 percent of meters are remotely operated and are read from outside the home. Meter readers still have to enter 10 percent of homes.
He said an entry could be added to the readers' devices, and forwarded automatically to the Department of Neighborhoods for follow-up. He said the city has 14 meter readers, and that they would have to undergo some training.
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