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Orem’s Neighborhood Preservation Unit goes civilian

By Genelle Pugmire daily Herald - | Apr 19, 2021
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Mike Paraskeva, a sergeant with the Orem Police Department, cleans an exterior wall before painting it as he and other city employees beautify the home and property of 99-year-old Nada Stevenson as part of the annual Day of Caring on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Orem. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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A decorative pick-up truck remains in a resident’s yard near a new apartment building Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, in the Sunset Heights neighborhood of Orem. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

In a time when police departments are being defunded, officers are scrutinized and neighborhoods are in crisis, the Orem Police Department is thriving on innovation and positivity.

Lt. Mike Paraskeva was a sergeant while serving in the Orem Police Department’s Neighborhood Preservation Unit. He said he saw deficiency on how things were running and presented ideas on the issue to Jamie Davidson, the city manager.

Paraskeva could see the need to lighten the load on a court system that had to listen to cases of residents who were cited for yards that were not in compliance with the city codes. His idea would also free up trained officers for other areas of public safety.

The suggestion that stuck with the city manager and Community Services department was the idea of taking the unit out of police jurisdiction and putting it under the manager’s office.

That would not only free up three officers, but it would be a better fit for residents to have non-uniformed code enforcers at their door.

“The civilian position removes the image of a heavy hand,” Paraskeva said.

It is not the wish of the police to bring scrutiny and judgment on neighbors when they drive up in a police car and uniformed officers come knocking, according to Paraskeva.

“This is a healing direction,” Paraskeva added.

Dedicated full-time employees given the right to enforce city code with neighborhood preservation issues will not only be able to work with families with untidy and unsafe yards, but also see if they need other services such as food, rent relief, home repairs, etc., according to Steven Downs, deputy city manager.

“We are trying to elevate lives in neighborhoods,” Downs said. “Besides, non-profits like churches, United Way and its agencies, and other services can help. We are looking at issues holistically.”

The Neighborhood Preservation Unit will be a part of the Community Services department directed by Kena Mathews.

As part of the program, Davidson has approved employees to take work time and with supervisors do service projects in the areas that need help.

“People get overwhelmed with life,” Mathews said. “The thought of maintaining is hard, but at the end of the day we do need yards in compliance.”

Mathews said there are numerous resources to find help. Orem even provides a tool library. They have a mobile trailer that has several yard tools and mowers they can bring to the home to help with yard maintenance.

This concept also helps fulfill a priority of the City Council to have safe and livable neighborhoods.

“We need to continue to invest in our city,” Mathews said. “With this code enforcement we believe we can put more time and energy into maintaining neighborhoods.”

Mathews also indicated the city has the technology and software that lets officials map out where properties of concern are located.

The original Neighborhood Preservation Unit began about 20 years ago with now-retired Chief Gary Giles, who has been dubbed a visionary in the creation of the program while an officer on the force.

“Code enforcement can work with Community Services to help people with great need and provide resources,” Mathews said. “We’re a good community neighbor.”

Mathews said she has already hired one civilian code enforcer and is hiring at least one perhaps two more.

While they are still working out the complete process, Mathews said the idea is to let the residents do as much as they can by themselves but to be ready with volunteers and resources when needed.

If the city receives a complaint about a yard or property, the code enforcer sends a letter or email with follow-up in 30 days, not a police officer with a citation.

While there may still be times the police may be called to help out, it is the hope of the city that this new program will free up officers to other areas of need and that residents will take advantage of the free services and some even volunteer to help out on projects.

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