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Quality-of-life ticketing debated

The old saying warns: "Be careful what you ask for."

For years, Common Council members grumbled that the city was too lax in cracking down on quality-of-life problems, including high grass and loud noise.

In recent months, the Police Department has dramatically beefed up enforcement of such offenses, writing thousands of tickets for everything from unsightly weeds to keeping upholstered furniture outside. The head of the office that processes the violations estimated Tuesday that her caseload has ballooned at least 150 percent in the past year.

Now, some lawmakers are getting angry calls from property owners who claim police are too eager to write tickets for conditions that the city has quietly tolerated for decades.

During a lengthy debate Tuesday, at least three Council members said they want to see more warning notices given before people are slapped with initial fines that range from $52.50 to $1,500.

This season, the city issued more than 4,400 tickets for high grass and weeds alone, citations that would generate $660,000 in fines.

South Council Member Michael P. Kearns said some homeowners had a tough time keeping up with their lawns during an unusually soggy summer, especially when they went on vacation.

Kearns also accused City Hall of hypocrisy, arguing that many city-owned vacant lots have high grass and weeds.

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," said Kearns.

The city aims to cut grass at vacant lots at least three times a season and also tries to respond swiftly to specific complaints, said Citizen Services Director Oswaldo Mestre Jr.

But Kearns believes the city has been cutting itself far more slack than it has homeowners. He may sponsor a change in the law that would expand Buffalo's use of warning notices for certain violations. In such instances, fines could only be imposed if offenders ignore warnings.

Majority Leader Richard A. Fontana and Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera agreed that a broader notification procedure is needed, especially for offenses that haven't been vigorously enforced in the past. For example, Fontana said many residents may not even be aware that it's illegal to have upholstered furniture designed for indoor use on outside porches or in yards. The furniture can attract rodents.

Not all Council members agree that the city should go easier on violators.

"I don't want there to be warnings. I want more people to get tickets," said Legislation Committee Chairman Joseph Golombek Jr. of the North District.

For every property owner who grumbles about a $150 ticket for high grass, there are other neighbors who are grateful for such crackdowns, Golombek said.

"If your grass is 10 inches high, you should know it's a problem," said Golombek.

A block club president later agreed with Golombek.

"People know when their grass has to be cut," said Arthur Robinson Jr., who heads the Seneca-Babcock Community Block Club. "They can always get a neighbor to cut it if they're on vacation or can't do it themselves for some reason."

The city has been taking some steps to make residents more aware of ordinances that aim to improve quality of life, said Linda Scott, assistant director of Buffalo's Bureau of Administrative Adjudication. For example, information sheets have been included in mailings of garbage user fees.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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