Editor's note: Knox Pages added more context to this story at 8:10 p.m. on April 27, 2021.
MOUNT VERNON — Speaking on issues related to homelessness, West-end resident Tonja Kent packed a lot of specifics into her four-minute presentation to Mount Vernon City Council on Monday.
Calling it a public health, safety, and environmental crisis residents are facing, Kent said that makeshift tents along the river and on private properties, trespassing, theft, vandalism, and open fires are among the problems residents are facing.
Individuals using garden hoses and the spigot in Arch Park to bath, sleeping on porches and swings, and threatening and intimidating behavior are other problems. Residents have incurred added expenses for lighting, locks, alarms, and other personal protection.
“Last fall I was approached in my yard by a man. He threatened to cut me up,” she said. “It took 18 minutes for officers to arrive at my residence. I ran to my garage and got a ball bat to protect myself.”
Environmental hazards include pollution, chemicals, biohazard waste such as urine, blood and used needles going into the Kokosing River.
“The properties are littered with donated and rotting food boxes, dead animal carcasses, used needles, soiled toilet paper, bottles filled with urine, feces, and old furniture,” she said. “As a taxpaying, law-abiding citizen of Mount Vernon, I would be arrested for such things as open fires, theft, vagrancy, trespassing, vandalism, and destruction of property."
Saying that she would hope that individuals who would violate these laws and ordinances would be held to the same standards as other residents, Kent had several recommendations for the city. The first is to pass an ordinance to create and enforce a sit-lie law.
A sit-lie law makes it unlawful for an individual to sit, lie or sleep on a sidewalk or in a public space.
She also said the city has an obligation to protect senior citizens in the west end and the obligation to encourage positive change.
"First of all, I'd like to ask how do we help these people, what resources do we have for them to succeed, and if any of you have any suggestions on how to address this health, safety, and environmental crisis that has been forced upon us," Kent said.
Council President Bruce Hawkins, who sits on the board of the Winter Sanctuary, the city's homeless shelter, said that some individuals refuse to use the shelter because they will not meet the standards set by the shelter.
“We realize we do not meet the needs of every person out there because they won't go,” he said.
Safety-service Director Rick Dzik said that just cleaning up tents isn't the solution because "it seems they just move elsewhere." Some of the properties are in the city and some are in Clinton Township, which makes it difficult for enforcement. He said the city could involve the health department and see what the health department has to say.
Mayor Matt Starr said he has reached out to local law enforcement agencies, city officials, and the Clinton Township trustees and zoning inspector to see what legal, property, and health/environmental issues need addressed.
“We really want to get to the root cause,” he said.
In its legislative session, council gave second readings to two pieces of legislation after discussing them again in committee meetings: the creation of a community advocate position within the police department and providing fire/EMS coverage to College Township. A third piece of legislation relating to the number of personnel in the fire department also received its second reading.
Council members' concerns and questions relating to the community advocate included requirements regarding confidentiality and how the city will assess the program.
Noting that it is not easy to eliminate a position, Councilman Mike Hillier was concerned about what happens if the city finds the advocate position is not working.
Dzik said the city did not want to be “paralyzed by analysis” and not do anything.
“Mass gun violence is due a lot to mental health,” he said. “Government is not good at providing mental health needs. This is an opportunity … If it's not working, if it's not reducing instances with the same customers, then yeah, we need to have that conversation.”
Councilman Tanner Salyers supports creating the position, saying that if council was told that one-third of the fire department's calls needed a specific piece of equipment, council would buy it.
“That is what the police chief has done,” he told council, adding that the advocate position is backed by best practices, requests from the community for reform, and funding is through a grant and private donation. “Even if there wasn't [all of that], this is the future of policing, and we need to respond.
“Even if there were no grants, we should be looking to incorporate this into our police department.”
Councilwoman Janis Seavolt said that she was initially worried about how the position would be funded and the safety of the advocate and the officer. After learning about the grant and private donation for funding, receiving letters from others in law enforcement, and taking into account that citizens want reform, she said she decided she should listen to those in the field and give the position a chance.
Council member Samantha Scoles said that she was told the purpose of the advocate is to triage and that what agencies do with that information is up to them. She requested the city to convene a panel with local agencies and ask them how they feel about the position, what information they need, and what they will do with the information.
“I want to make sure we're not just handing over an assessment packet,” she said.
Regarding the fire/EMS agreement with College Township and Kenyon College, Dzik clarified questions relating to staffing the Gambier station. Questions included the level of certification needed for personnel, how the city will track expenses, who will orient the new hires, and who is responsible for repairing current and buying future equipment.
In other business, council:
— Approved the reappointment of Colleen Clarkson to the Shade Tree and Beautification Committee
— Approved donating a 2010 Dodge Charger to the Knox County Airport Authority. The vehicle was used by the MVPD and MVFD and is no longer needed.
— Approved Paddle for Heroes' request to camp at Memorial Park to kick off its 162-mile kayak trip from Mount Vernon to Marietta
— Approved fund transfers
— Approved salary rates for elected council members for 2022-23 and the city treasurer for 2022-25
— Approved updates to the codified ordinances
— Approved a wage and benefit agreement for employees in the bargaining units Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, AFSCME, Local 11, AFL-CIO. The units agreed to forego a raise in 2021.
— Gave a first reading to the reappointment of Michael Percy to the Board of Zoning Appeals