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Albany Code Enforcement about much more than blight flight

From left, Chief Albany Code Enforcer Robert Carter, Code Enforcement Director Mike Tilson and Chief Marshal Nathaniel Norman were crucial in developing Albany/Dougherty County’s new Code office in 2006. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

From left, Chief Albany Code Enforcer Robert Carter, Code Enforcement Director Mike Tilson and Chief Marshal Nathaniel Norman were crucial in developing Albany/Dougherty County’s new Code office in 2006. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Army veteran Mike Tilson, who was working with the Albany Police Department when he was selected to head Albany’s new Code Enforcement department in 2006, said that while demolition of blighted properties is a high-profile priority in the city, it is only a part of what the department does. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — When officials with the then newly formed Albany Code Enforcement department made demolition of the old Pet Dairy facility at 809 W. Oglethorpe Blvd. a priority, it took a 10-minute conversation with the owner of the property to get it done.

When Code Enforcement put the former Heritage House motel in its demolition cross hairs, the story was much different.

“It took five years, a couple of court cases and appeals, and a whole lot of money,” Code Director Mike Tilson said.

Bottom line, though: The Heritage House came down, as have 343 other properties since Code Enforcement was voted into existence by the Albany City Commission in August of 2006. And while the department’s highly successful — and visible — blight fight gets the majority of attention from local residents and media, it’s only a part of what Code Enforcement does. Much of it, though, is not going to generate headlines.

“Yeah, people aren’t going to hear about a lot of the things we do,” Chief Code Officer Robert Carter said. “We kind of do everything that no one else wants to do.”

Then-Assistant City Manager James Taylor was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the city’s Code office. Through an ordinance passed by the City Commission based on his recommendation, the department came into being on Sept. 1, 2006. The plan was a relatively simple one: Combine the city’s code, business license, Municipal Court security and other functions under one umbrella department.

“Those functions were all over the place,” Taylor, now Albany’s city manager, said. “The city had officers working on code violations with the police department, and you had the Marshal’s office handling business and alcohol licenses and court security. The idea was to try and find those functions a home.”

Tilson, an Army veteran who was working with the Albany Police Department when he was selected to head the new Code Enforcement office, turned out to be a natural for the position. With a keen eye for organization and his background in enforcement, Tilson — along with Carter and Chief Marshal Nathaniel Norman — made the consolidation a smooth one.

“There were really few problems in the transition,” Norman said. “I guess the biggest one was moving into the Code Enforcement offices from Treasury, which is where much of our work (business licenses, alcohol licenses) was done. That’s created a few small issues as we’ve worked things out, but we generally take care of everything through trial and error.”

The Code Enforcement department has evolved into a full-time staff of 17 (with two part-timers), a mix of POST-certified officers and civilian inspectors. The Code officers are divided into two divisions: services and enforcement.

Services Division officers are responsible for occupation tax (business licence) enforcement, alcohol license enforcement, Municipal Court security, underage drinking compliance, taxi permits, false alarm ordinance, serving Municipal Court subpoenas, sign ordinance compliance, curb stoning (illegal vehicle sales) and other duties. Enforcement Division officers monitor dilapidated structures, junk cars, overgrown lots, rental property maintenance, fire damage inspections, rights-of-way compliance, debris in yards, noise enforcement and other similar issues.

“Our department was established to deal with a lot of the ‘afterthought’ functions,” Tilson said. “But they’re functions that needed to be dealt with. We’re known for the demolitions and blight work, but we take those other functions just as seriously.

“We’ve made sure an untold number of toilets (in rental property) were fixed, that showers, water heaters and fences were repaired. Those things are a big deal. And the city’s losing revenue if businesses don’t pay their occupation taxes. All of what we do is important to citizens of the community.”

Raised in Milwaukee, where he regularly attended Milwaukee Braves and Green Bay Packers games, Tilson knew early-on that he wanted to be involved in public safety. He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Wisconsin, Plattville with an eye on a career as an FBI agent.

“One of my favorite TV shows was ‘The FBI,’ and I was always interested in being an FBI agent or in some similar agency,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to keep people away from evil. I talked to an FBI recruiter in college, and he suggested I get involved in ROTC.”

Tilson was in the National Guard for a brief period after completing ROTC training at UW-Plattville, and in January of 1980 he enlisted in the U.S. Army as a reserve officer. He went through basic at Fort McClellan, Ala., and completed Military Police training in Arlington, Va. He served as a platoon leader at a division artillery post in Korea before returning to the States for further training at Fort McClellan.

Tilson served at Fort Stewart in Savannah before being transferred to Hawaii. From there, he served as an assistant to an Army general during Operation Desert Storm, and before returning to the mainland at Fort Pickett, Va., he met and married his wife Michelle, the daughter of a former Army CID agent.

“Michelle was from the Atlanta area, but we met in Hawaii and got married there,” Tilson said. “We’ve been together 23 years now and have two children (Kevin, who is a freshman at Georgia Southwestern State College, and Lela, who is a sophomore at Westover High School).”

Tilson retired from the military in 1996 and attended the Police Academy at Fort Benning in Columbus. There, he was recruited by the Albany Police Department. He worked as a patrol officer in East Albany before being named APD’s Police Planning and Research Manager.

“The Army prepared me for pretty much anything that came along, and working as APD planning and research manager helped me with staffing, equipment planning and budget issues,” Tilson said. “I was prepared for creating a new organization (with Code Enforcement).”

Under then-City Manager Alfred Lott, the new Code office concentrated for an initial three-year period on blight in Albany’s inner-city. The department’s target area included 500 buildings and a 900-parcel section of the city. Gradually, as improvements were made and priorities shifted, Code Enforcement’s focus became less centered.

“In the city, we deal with divided political areas,” Taylor said. “We have to give everyone a fair share. Some divisions have greater challenges, but we have to work with the entire city. Unfortunately, there is a very finite pot of money from which we operate, so we have to prioritize.

“Probably more than I’d like, we have become very demand driven. Therefore, our Code department has to be flexible. If the sky were to open up and all kinds of money poured down, we could address all our problems. I don’t see that happening, so we have to do what we can do. But every little thing we get done is a step closer to where we want to be.”

While demolition of dilapidated properties is not Code Enforcement’s only function, it is certainly its most visible. Since the office was developed, Code has overseen the demolition of 344 properties and had 114 properties it identified as substandard repaired by owners. Those 458 abatements have had a huge impact on blight in the city. But getting them from notification to demolition is a long and costly process.

“That whole process is super labor-intensive,” Albany City Attorney Nathan Davis said. “I’ve got two shelves in my office filled with files of 130 or more cases. (Tilson clarifies that there are actually 171.) By the time we go through the process of notifying property owners, getting a court order and taking care of all that must be done, well, you’re talking about a lot of work.

“One thing we’re looking to do in the next month or so is prioritize all those files, work to move some of the properties to the head of the list. Finances enters into it, but I think you’re going to see a continued emphasis on the demolition of these properties. I can’t think of many things that benefit the entire city more, and given the position of the current City Commission, I think this will remain a priority.”

Of course, Tilson and his staff have a tough enough time maintaining a priority list from their backlog of cases, many more generated now that the city has developed its 311 report line that allows citizens to conveniently call in complaints.

“In many respects, our department is reactive in nature now,” Tilson said. “I’d like to get to a happy medium where we do proactive work where needed, but reactive is the norm now, especially with 311. The volume of calls now is such that we can’t get to them all. That’s reality. That’s why we’re relying more on our citizens.

“We often get placed in a lot of no-win scenarios. I think overall, though, at the end of the six-and-a-half years of this office, the vast majority of things we’ve gotten involved in are success stories. No one knows about most of them, but we have an excellent staff here. And they’ve given us a lot of successes.”