He said the county lacks a general provision to charge code violators with a misdemeanor penalty — even though state statute grants counties that power should they chose to exercise it.
Rather each set of county rules, from fire safety enforcement, to health, planning and animal services have their own language on whether violations carry a misdemeanor charge.
Coward said that leaves the county susceptible to legal argument. Where misdemeanors are levied, those charged could complain the county doesn’t have consistent standards. And where misdemeanors aren’t levied, the county has little recourse to enforce their codes.
For example, the planning code violations carry a maximum fine of $500 per day, but the county has to file a civil lawsuit to collect the fine, Coward said.
If violations carried a misdemeanor, the county could rely on the legal and justice system to get the job done.
Code Enforcement Officer Tony Elders said he once arrived at a person’s house in a deputy’s car as a bluff because that person had been ignoring his enforcement letters.
Coward said he is drafting a general provision so that any and all code violations carry the potential of a misdemeanor.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said another area the county is looking to improve enforcement is requiring some sort of business license through the county, even if it is free of charge, so officials are aware of the type of businesses opening within the county.
Towns require business licenses, but counties do not. Recently, two sweepstakes businesses on U.S. 441 near Cherokee went nearly a year undetected even though that type of operation isn’t permitted in that area under the county’s local ordinances.
“For the most part, our ordinances are almost self-enforced,” Wooten said. “Unless we hear about a violation, it can go undetected. The ordinances lose their credibility if we can’t enforce them.”
Wooten also suggested reviewing newly opened electrical accounts at Duke energy to keep a tab on newly opened businesses.