Even though the Legislature increased punishments for littering effective Sept. 1, Decatur lacks resources for enforcement against an "epidemic" of illegal dumping, officials said.
Community Development Chief Inspector David Lee said finding time to follow an illegal dumping case from start to finish can be difficult when city code enforcement officers also have to focus on unsafe buildings, enforcing the city’s grass and weed ordinance, and other duties.
“Enforcing the illegal dumping and litter law is very manpower intensive,” Lee said. “We typically do all of the investigations. The Police Department occasionally assists us in identifying suspects because they deal with so many people.”
Lee said the city is running surveillance cameras again for the third time since arresting three men in June 2018.
In July 2018, Municipal Court Judge Billy Cook sentenced the trio to a 90-day suspended sentence each with 12 months of probation on illegal dumping charges. One of the men was ordered to pay a $1,064 fine, including $196 in restitution to Community Development for time spent on cleaning up the garbage.
Lee said only two more suspects have been arrested on illegal dumping charges in the last 17 months.
“It’s still as bad an epidemic as it’s ever been,” Lee said. “It’s just hard to catch people in the act. We move the cameras one place and they’ll dump in another. It would be nice if I were clairvoyant.”
Mayor Tab Bowling said enforcement has been difficult because the suspect had "to be caught in the act in the same way as a speeder does. Typically, they’re not going to dump illegally when you’re around and often they dump at night so getting good imagery is difficult (when using surveillance cameras).”
The state law, even before it was amended to increase penalties, assists in prosecutions by creating a presumption that a series of dumped items "clearly bearing the name of a person" were dumped by the named person.
Under the new law that went into effect Sept. 1:
• The minimum fine for a first littering conviction is increased from $250 to $500.
• The punishment for the second and any subsequent conviction is increased from $500 to $1,000 and up to 100 hours of community service cleaning up litter or a fine of not less than $2,000 and not more than $3,000.
• Additional penalties of $500 per violation can be assessed for improper disposal of cigarettes or cigars, containers of urine or food containers.
Lee said code enforcement officers go to the city magistrate when they believe they have enough evidence to prosecute and the magistrate issues a warrant for the suspect’s arrest.
The suspects are then prosecuted in Municipal Court. A guilty decision can be appealed to Morgan County Circuit Court.
“Usually the evidence is so overwhelming the suspect normally settles without a trial,” Lee said.
Bowling said he would like for people "to have personal pride in their city and not litter or illegally dump, but those that do are breaking the law and will be punished accordingly."
Rickey Terry, director of Street and Environmental Services, said his department’s loader truck goes to the illegal dumps and removes the garbage with the claw.
“They do a pretty good job of picking up the garbage that’s not picked up by the claw,” Terry said.
But after looking at several dump sites on Wednesday, Bowling said the city isn’t doing a good enough job of cleaning up because they’re leaving small items that aren’t picked up by the claw.
“If we can’t do it all right, we don’t need to do it at all,” Bowling said.