He claims the city is using the fine to generate income, not help the community
By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
Is Missouri City treating its citizens like trash?
That’s what one resident believes who questions an ordinance that he says has raised more than a half a million dollars extra for the city since it’s inception three years ago.
Noel Pinnock is challenging Missouri City officials to do something different with its trash can violations, which he says has more than tripled since its start in 2014. At issue is the placement of blue trash bins distributed by the city for recycling. When the residents received the 64-gallon rolling recycling cans, the city also created an ordinance stating residents would be fined if the cans could be seen from the road.
Pinnock argues that the city has a one-size-fits-all policy that is fine for businesses that can build a partition around their trash, but it does not work in neighborhoods where fences are not allowed, in homes without garages and for the elderly who cannot easily maneuver the bins. He lives on a golf course in the 2900 block of Robinson Road and could face additional violations if his cans were visible from the street or the course.
His eyes were opened to the problem in May when a neighbor gave him a letter, addressed to Pinnock but delivered to the wrong home. The letter was a notice of summons for Pinnock’s arrest if he did not appear in court for being in violation of the trash can ordinance.
Included in the letter was a picture of a flier the city said it placed on his front door informing him of a violation, which Pinnock said he never saw. So Pinnock, who works for the city of Houston, took off time from work to go to court for an arraignment on a trash bin violation and fine of $275.
“The city is criminalizing civil infractions. And there were droves of citizens getting cited,” said Pinnock.
As he waited for his case, Pinnock said he watched a city attorney negotiating with multiple residents to resolve their cases.
“There was a 75-year-old woman walking with a cane sitting at the table and I can hear the state prosecutor negotiating terms. He told her you can pay $275 or reduce it to $150. She said, ‘I don’t care, I just want to be done with this.’ I cried when I heard that elderly woman and thought, what is the city doing?”
After appearing in court, Pinnock went to the Missouri City City Council in May and addressed the council, telling them they were going about this all wrong. Instead of enforcing and threatening criminal action, they should be informing and talking to residents. As he returned home from the courts, he saw one of the city’s “door knocker notices” on the street by the curb, looking like a piece of trash. He presumed it blew off another homeowner’s door and realized another neighbor could be getting a ticket and possible criminal charges if they don’t see the notice. So he began investigating.
Most neighborhood and homeowner associations were providing trash pickup but when the city took over, they decided to sweeten the deal by offering recycling in the form of the 64-gallon, blue trash bins. The city also said that the blue can owners would be in violation if they can be seen from the street.
In 2014 there were 695 trashcan violations. In 2015 the violations increased to 1,602 and last year there were 2,529 trashcan violations. As a result, the city hired three more code enforcement officers, two supervisors and continues to practice what Pinnock calls the “site and unseen fine protocol.”
“One would wonder why the city, seeing this ballooning trend, wouldn’t promote an information campaign to better understand the circumstances surrounding some of these exceptions and not relegate residents to carve out time to appear in court when a phone call could have saved the city time and money,” he said.
Missouri City spokesman Cory Stottlemyer said the City issued a news release last November that went out to all residents announcing the fines for ordinance violations including solid waste receptacle placement. It includes a minimum fine of $50 for a first conviction, $250 for a second conviction and $500 for a third conviction.
That does not square with how Pinnock said he was treated and with how he heard the city attorney making negotiations with violators in court. Pinnock said he received notice of a $275 fine, which he is challenging. Others who pled guilty were getting negotiated down to $137 plus court costs.
Pinnock said there are several reasons why the cans are not legitimately screened from view. Some elderly residents can’t drag and pull the 64-gallon bins due to physical limitations so they leave them close to the home. Residents living on golf courses and open areas with acreage lots can’t avoid the cans from being seen no matter where they place them. Some residents never received a warning to address the alleged violation.
“I support the collection of revenue,” said Pinnock, “but not on the backs of poor and limited income people and certainly not when the revenue is predicated on taxation without representation,” said Pinnock.
He said Missouri City residents pays 63 percent of the city budget in property taxes. Then someone figured out they could make money on the backs of residents by criminalizing trash, Pinnock said.
“I remember a day when a code enforcement officer would see me and say, hey Noel, that grass is a little high and I’d say OK and fix it. These code enforcers aren’t making contact with residents; they are just trying to give a ticket,” he said.
“I’m a policy maker and if I’m crafting policy, I have to consider some of the exceptions. How can we connect with the residents instead of citing you? I still think of that 75-year-old woman. If that woman got a call and somebody came to her door and said, ‘wow, she can’t get that trashcan in and out, maybe I’ll talk to her neighbors and ask if they’ll help her out,’ the city should be saying, what can we do, instead of what can we get. They need to address the root cause, not cite the symptom,” said Pinnock.
So he pled not guilty to the violation and requested a jury trial. He is also waiting to hear back from city officials after making a public plea that the city do better by its residents.
Based on the minimum $50 fee the city said it charges, the trashcan violations would generate anywhere from $34,700 to $126,450 during the three-year period. Based on Pinnock’s claim of a $275 fine, those same violations would generate $191,125 in the first year and $695,475 last year.
The code enforcement-related items approved by the Council at its Nov. 7, 2016, regular meeting, in addition to the creation of the Nuisance Abatement Committee, were strategic initiatives coordinated by City Manager Anthony Snipes in line with City Council’s goals to address frequent code enforcement violations.
Council had requested staff to analyze current practices and address the most common code enforcement violations, which included trash screenings.
The graduated minimum penalties and direct citing to court were aimed at targeting frequent violators and assisting with spreading awareness of the violation, according to the city.