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Keith Brown has complained about this vacant, burned-out house next door to his house on Fairwoods Drive that vandals have frequented at all hours of the day and night making Brown fearful for his safety in his own neighborhood.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

In the battle with blight, one Baton Rouge councilman wants to introduce an industrial shredder and district court judges into the mix.

The Metro Council blight committee held their first meeting on Wednesday. Representatives from law enforcement, the fire department, the district attorney's office, the local congressional office and the mayor's office joined with council members and residents to begin discussing ways to fix or demolish abandoned and dangerous property.

Claire Major, who owns Artvark, Limited, a furniture and home decor store near the corner of Scenic Highway and North Street, said she's moving her business in part because she's tired of her customers having to drive through an area with so many poorly maintained properties.

"I'm in the heart of blight. … People care, but they think it's hopeless," she said.

Currently, most property owners cited for dilapidated houses, unkempt lots, junked cars or rancid pools are summoned to an administrative court. The judge can fine the owners and, if they don't pay, put a lien on their property, but the judge can't put them in jail.

Councilman Matt Watson said many people don't show up for blight court. He led a recent effort to raise fines up to $1,000, $3,000 and $5,000 for first, second and subsequent violations. It's not meant to be a money grab, he said, but to entice people to show up and address the problems.

Now, he's looking to see if the cases should be taken up in district court. Blight cases can go before a district judge already, but they aren't normally handled that way, said parish attorney Lea Anne Batson.

Watson said sending people to district court, where judges can levy jail time, might snap the owners to attention. Councilman Buddy Amoroso also said such a move might compel people to clean up their acts.

Batson, however, warned that the issue may not be so simple. She estimated that in 90 percent of the cases, there is no single property owner — a site may be adjudicated, meaning it's been seized for failure to pay taxes, or the property owner may have died with dozens of heirs, meaning there's no specific person her office can try to put in jail or garnish wages from.

The matter was left open for the time being. The committee also questioned whether to attempt a repeat of 2003's Operation Takedown, in which the city-parish tore down vacant buildings flagged by police as dens of drug, gambling and prostitution. However, it was costly, and the city-parish had to divert money out of the general fund to bankroll the operation, Batson said. Committee members kept the option on the table but took no definitive action Wednesday.

The committee instead turned to their contract with Republic Services, which handles local garbage collection. Committee members asked whether the company could collect waste from a blighted property like a vacant lot where people have dumped tires.

However, the garbage company is paid through a service fee usually tacked onto residents' water bills. If a property is abandoned and not purchasing utilities, it also doesn't get garbage service even if neighbors clean up the property and leave the waste on the curb, Batson explained.

That's a loophole that needs to be closed, councilwoman Tara Wicker said. She plans to take up the contract in a subsequent meeting.

First, she wants to look at one specific component — people who illegally dump tires. She tasked the committee with finding a solution.

Watson recommended the city invest about $326,000 to buy an industrial shredder so people have a place to drop off tires, and the city-parish could then sell the rubber to a company that can recycle it for asphalt or other commercial uses.

"Why can't we as a municipality make some money off our garbage?" he asked.

It's not that simple, Batson responded.

Tire disposal is tricky, and overseen by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Tires are a fire risk, and their smoke releases dangerous chemicals and particulate matter, said LDEQ spokesman Greg Langley.

The city-parish can apply for a permit, but the department doesn't speculate on a potential applicant's chance of success, Langley said. The permit would limit how many tires and how much tire shred could be stored, for fire safety.

The city-parish could dispose of tires in a landfill or sell them to an approved recycle company such as Colt, Inc., the company Watson identified. The state even reimburses people who send tires to be recycled — about 8 cents a pound — but the city-parish would have to show they got the tires from a registered dealer, like an auto shop, Langley said.

Tires from a vacant lot or found on the side of the road don't qualify for the reimbursement, though they can still be shredded. The city-parish would just have to see if anyone would be willing to buy them, he said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.