The Board of County Supervisors demanded Tuesday a tougher crackdown on such neighborhood nuisances as junked cars, "popsicle signs" and other eyesores.
But county staff members charged with enforcing Prince William County's codes complained they are overworked, understaffed and hobbled by judges who give chronic problem property owners chance after chance to redeem themselves.
"I'm very disappointed in the progress we've made," said Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco). "We've had cases that began in 2001, and it's now 2004. We've got to have a better system of following through."
Supervisors are acutely aware of such neighborhood problems because constituents complain to them about the issue. Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) said she receives as many as a dozen complaints a day about such problems as homes with too many residents or too many vehicles on a front lawn.
County staff members say only 5 percent of cases are the long-running sagas to which Jenkins was referring. Most cases are solved satisfactorily, said Tom Bruun, the Public Works Department executive who oversees the county's community maintenance program.
He gave supervisors an analysis showing that the number of landscaping projects, litter pickups and sign removals were up while incidents of graffiti were down. Bruun said more cases were being pursued as criminal matters, which allows the courts to order cleanups of problem properties.
"But those 5 percent that remain are incredibly difficult and time-consuming," Bruun said.
He outlined several long-running cases that have resulted in many court battles, forced cleanups and other hurdles. In one case, the property owner was arrested after he fired 20 shots from a semiautomatic gun while an inspector was on his property.
Supervisors, including Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) and Corey A. Stewart (R-Occoquan), questioned whether staff members could take a harder line on violators. Several suggested levying the maximum $1,000-a-day fine more often.
They also suggested asking Circuit Court judges to go along on a road trip across the county to visit some of the worst eyesores. Perhaps then the judges would come down harder on violators, supervisors said.
County Attorney Sharon E. Pandak said the courts have been reluctant to authorize heavy penalties on homeowners. She said county lawyers have been more successful in getting the courts to authorize payments to Prince William for actual costs of cleaning up the problem properties. A lien is then put on the property.
Pandak said another option might be to foreclose on the property if the cleanup costs continue to escalate.
Bruun said the pace of the work is overwhelming county staff. With approximately 1,200 active cases, the department is authorized for 15 inspectors. There are only four fully trained inspectors on the job. An additional six are in training, and two more have just accepted inspector positions, which start around $34,000 a year.
Bruun said the department has had to cut back on targeted neighborhood sweeps and has instead become more reactive, relying on complaints from residents.
County Executive Craig S. Gerhart said Prince William is seeking to overcome the turnover problem by constantly recruiting and hiring inspectors to get the department up to full staffing.
"You have been understaffed and running around in circles," Caddigan said.