CLAFLIN — According to Gary Vaughan, Claflin’s Public Code Enforcement Officer, simply keeping up appearances can go a long way towards cutting crime in a community. After more than 30 years of law enforcement service, he knows what he’s talking about.
When he first put on a Claflin badge, it wasn’t uncommon for the City to file 60 to 70 criminal cases in a year. Today, that’s down to around 15 a year, he told the Great Bend Tribune Tuesday in a telephone interview. The reason is simple. When homes are maintained, they have more pride, and are less inclined to rent to low-quality tenants, who often attract a criminal element.
The community response is visible, with a number of new homes being built within the city limits in recent years, requests from property owners outside the city limits requesting to be annexed into the city, and the occasional visit to the city offices from out-of-town persons seeking buildable lots in town.
Other communities are taking notice. Most recently, communication was received from the City of Wilson, complimenting Claflin on how it handles dilapidated properties, which was presented at the October 15 city council meeting.
It starts with good city ordinances, Vaughan said. By working within the law, Vaughan has been able to convince even out-of-town property owners with nothing but distant ties to comply with city ordinances. But it’s not just him, he said. His efforts would be for nothing if it weren’t for the fact that the mayor, city council, municipal judge, and the citizens of Claflin back him 100 percent.
The campaign to clean up Claflin coincided with the election of Mayor Mike Urban, a lifelong resident, about eight years ago. For years, the abandoned property to the south of Urban’s had harbored rodents and insects and was an eyesore, detracting from his own property. Efforts to get the owners of record to clean up the mess had failed.
“When I became mayor, I decided I didn’t want anyone else to have to go through that,” he said.
As enforcement of long-standing ordinances was stepped up, there was resistance. Notifying owners they were in violation fell to the city’s superintendent. After threats were made and dogs were sicced on him, Vaughan, at the time Claflin’s Chief of Police, offered to help.
He started with a pretty thick file of offenders, but now it’s pretty thin, he said. Vaughan, now in his 60s, has begun to transition into semi-retirement and now serves as Claflin’s Public Officer. Following up on ordinance violations is his main focus.
The city has come a long way. Many structures too far gone to be resurrected have been razed and new ones have been built in their place, Urban said. Efforts are more proactive now. The citizens of Claflin have learned that the town leadership means business and are better about resolving issues quickly when Vaughan stops to talk to them.
Those who choose to ignore his friendly advice and written notices are summoned to court, where they may face fines of $100 a day for every day the property is in violation are common. On average, those offenders have been slapped with fines ranging from $1,000 to $1,500. Other more resistant offenders have been charged fines in excess of $50,000.
“They can work out a payment plan, but the fine sticks,” Urban said.
While most of the ordinances have not changed over the years, one addressing the height of grass and weeds has. After one absentee property owner informed Urban that the fines imposed for the city to mow his lawn was less expensive than for him to hire someone to keep it at the appropriate length, Urban met with the city council, and the fees were upped. Now, the city charges a $250 mowing fee, plus $75 dollars an hour for labor, with a three-hour minimum. And the charge is imposed as soon as equipment is set on the property.
“When they get a bill for $475 to mow their lawn, they take notice,” Vaughan said.
He is quick to say that he goes out of his way to make contact and work with people to help them get right with the law. As long as they are willing to make an honest effort and work with the city, they won’t face the consequences. And, the city provides an annual cleanup week for residents. All manner of junk can be disposed of, making it easy to get rid of accumulating rubbish.
Like any small town, Claflin has some absentee property owners, but distance doesn’t deter Vaughan. If phone calls and written notices aren’t effective, he has been known to call the sheriff where the owner lives and inform them he is sending a bench warrant for their arrest, and if bond is not posted, he or one of the city’s officers will drive there and transport the offender back. The City isn’t bluffing.
“We have funds set back each year to cover the cost of sending an officer if need be, as well as money to raze a property if that is the only option,” Vaughan said.
Every town has its demons, Urban said, and they have to find their own way to deal with them. Claflin has found a way that works, and its citizens are proud of their little community.