ELKHART — A month after becoming Elkhart’s new building commissioner, it appears Denny Correll is quickly changing the way the city looks at substandard properties targeted for demolition.
Correll had served as brownfield coordinator for the city for about two years and led city efforts to demolish numerous large industrial eyesores such as Walter Piano building, the armory, LaBour Pump, Elkhart Foundry and Bergerson Screw Co.
But in late August, Correll was named building commissioner after Denny Mann retired because of health problems.
His new assignment was part of a reshuffling of duties and positions announced by Mayor Dick Moore.
Upon arrival, though, Correll said he found the building department less than functional and the staff’s outlook less than positive.
He said he also realized some cases involving substandard properties linger for way too long and that too many buildings are often demolished at the city’s expense.
As building commissioner he oversees ordinance violations and substandard building investigations.
Two of Correll’s initial changes involve substandard properties.
Most significantly, Correll established the use of performance bonds when the city seeks demolition of a building but property owners instead prefer to make repairs. Under that scenario, if the property is not repaired, the city can revoke the bond and use the money for demolition.
The bond is then tied to compliance agreements in which the owner outlines repair plans with a specific time frame.
The use of performance bonds was approved by the city’s board of public safety in September and Correll was given latitude to set the amount of the bond and how quickly it needs to be obtained.
The policy is an incentive to get repairs done and may eventually speed up the process, Correll said.
“I’m trying to get people to take responsibility,” Correll said.
The city is not trying to take an adversarial approach, he said, but officials are demanding some accountability for properties that — in many cases — present a public safety concern.
“We’re not trying to make the city rich or force people out of the city,” he said. “We’re trying to improve the conditions of the neighborhoods.”
Correll, 65, is also taking a more active role in hearings known as OTAs — order to take action — where the city seeks repairs or approval for demolition. The majority of the cases involve houses and apartments buildings.
While Mann chose not to be an active voice in the hearing process, Correll now sits near the hearing officer, LeRoy Berry, and offers insights and parameters for the performance bonds.
The hearings operate like a court, with the city bringing evidence against the owners, who have a chance to offer their side. The hearing officer then decides to approve demolition requests or arrangements with the owner to make repairs.
“We want to make sure they have real skin in the game,” Correll said, referring to the use of performance bonds.
Much of his career prior to joining the city a few years ago was spent in the information technology field.
Moore said he liked Correll’s track record as brownfield coordinator and neighborhood coordinator.
He said Correll asked for the job with “great enthusiasm.”
“His dedication to cleaning up our blighted areas made his appointment to the building commissioner position a no-brainer,” Moore said.
David Henke, a Republican city councilman and a long-running critic of the building department, said the change in leadership was needed. In fact, Henke praised the change at a recent council meeting and — unlike past years — spoke in favor of the department’s budget for 2014.
“His direct management style and his no-nonsense approach will be a big benefit for everyone in the city,” Henke said.
The performance bond policy was introduced on Sept. 24 at OTA hearings that included 17 cases.
Some of the people who appeared at the hearings were riled by the notion of requiring performance bonds and said forcing them to post a bond will inhibit their ability to make repairs.
A bond can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the project. Typically, a bond can be acquired by putting up 10 percent of the total value.
Wendy Galbreath got a taste of the change in policy when she was ordered to appear last month after failing to keep the city abreast of repairs to a house at 518 W. Franklin St.
She bought the house a year ago from an acquaintance for $3,500. The house appears to have some historical value, but Galbreath said she didn’t realize the extent of repairs needed until after she took ownership.
Problems include plumbing and a lack of heat and electricity. Some windows are boarded up and the siding needs paint.
In recent months, Galbreath said she did some minor plumbing and plans to fix a sink.
Asked at the hearing why she did not keep the city updated after meeting months earlier, she said the house had become infested with fleas and she didn’t want city workers to be exposed.
Unlike her first hearing this summer, she learned she would need to post a bond with a new agreement.
“How can I pay for a bond and do the repairs?” she asked.
The city cannot wait much longer, Correll told her.
“The city has to have some guarantee that the work is going to be done,” Correll said. “With you not contacting us, we are skeptical that the work will be done.”
Afterward, Galbreath sounded suspicious of the bond requirement and said she’ll have to learn more about it.
She was given two weeks to agree to a compliance agreement with a bond.
City officials believe people had been living in the house despite the lack of plumbing, heat or electricity.
“They been on my butt ever since I got this house,” she said. “I’m doing the best I can.”
Cassidy Fritz, a court-appointed attorney representing an estate with several dozen properties, also appeared that day.
In one of three cases he was there for, Fritz had a choice of a getting a performance bond and making repairs or agreeing to demolish a house.
He opted to agree to a demolition, noting that the performance bond forced his hand.
“I can see why the city wants to have a performance bond. Probably, people were not performing,” Fritz said.
“It creates an incentive, but it also creates a hardship for certain families. You feel for them,” he said.
Correll said he is working on a more aggressive action plan for 2014 for substandard properties. He said he hopes to have a working list of substandard properties that will be targeted next year.
Priorities for demolition, he said, will be based on three factors: burned-out structures, dilapidated buildings near parks and schools, and buildings along the city’s main traffic corridors.