By C.J. Barbre
She was a cop. She became a code enforcement officer and helped clean up Apache Junction, Ariz., in an area she said had at least two drug houses per block.
"Arizona is considered a transshipment point for loads of drugs, primarily marijuana, cocaine, Mexican black tar heroin, and increasingly methamphetamine produced in Mexico, destined for other areas in the U.S." according to www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov.
"Deterioration in a community breeds crime," said Cindy Borba as she told about her days working to clean up a bad area in Apache Junction. "We went into the community doing code compliance - hit it hard. We turned it around in four years with grant funding and community policing. Community involvement makes all the difference. It means you go out and do public speaking. We would go door to door in some of the worst areas and say, 'we are coming to your street with a dumpster and clean up.'" Borba said they got donations from places like Wal-Mart and Save Mart in exchange for a sponsorship banner on the dumpster.
"It's amazing how they got to know each other," she said about the residents. "It's like people just remained in their houses because of drug houses. I would go in and nail [drug houses] on every code compliance, so they moved - out to the county."
Ah, there's the rub. Borba, 47, returned to California after a 25 year hiatus when her mother became ill. About six months ago she landed an "entry level position" at Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA) as a Building and Zoning Inspector/Code Enforcement person. Now she is "county."
And it's no secret that some negative elements in Tulare County are refugees from metropolitan areas in the state, which isn't to say there are no home grown negative elements.
"When I took this job I was not prepared," Borba said. "In cities where I have lived, they have money. I was really shocked at the lack of enforcement. They have had one guy for the last 12 years. The poor guy was backlogged 1,600 cases. How can this happen? Who was ignoring this problem, because that breeds crime."
The slinder and fit-looking 5' 8" tall Borba walks the walk. She said back in high school in Lemoore, she was assigned to determine her future goal. That was in the '70s and women were cutting new career paths, formerly the exclusive domain of the male gender. Her grandmother had a friend whose daughter was a California Highway Patrol Officer. 'Good pay and job security, that was the way to go,' Grandma said.
Borba thought it sounded exciting and wrangled a scholarship to attend College of the Sequoias' Criminal Justice Training course. She said the class was being taught by a 70-year-old Kings County Sheriff. "He was the best story teller." She said the stories were "really happy and sad and exciting." She was hooked.
Borba has worked as a police officer in California, Texas and Arizona. She started as a federal police officer at China Lake where she stayed for two years, then worked four years at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport where she was cross-trained in police, fire and aircraft crash rescue. She spent a year working as a police officer for the City of Tempe, and so on. This was interspersed with a few shots at entrepreneurial endeavors such as her own landscape business.
Borba has the enthusiasm of a new hire. "They call me a zoning and building inspector, but I call myself 'code compliance.' Basically all you're doing is enforcing according to zoning ordinance and making sure they get permits." She said the reality is they work closely with building instructors and there are a lot more of those.
Near Borba's cubicle is the office of Dave Dean, RMA Chief Building Official. "I work closely with Dave," she said. Dave responded that the county has 14 full-time building inspectors, some out of the Visalia office and others out of the Porterville office.
Borba also introduced Esteban Benavides, the county's new vehicle abatement person, with just three days on the job.
"Thank goodness they hired Esteban. We've been bombarded with vehicle abatement requests," Borba said. She also noted that the department is getting a few new permit techs to help catch up with the backlog. "Right now we're swamped with people moving and complaining," she said referring to new residents to the county in part and parcel with the construction boom. "We have to prioritize."
Borba said for her the most frustrating situation was the inability to make changes faster. "The worst thing is when you find a nuisance and can't abate immediately, and it messes up the neighborhood, and there are undesirable people on the property . . . and rodents . . ." She had a thick file with at least a half dozen photos of piles of trash and junk cars and a pitiful, trashy trailer, but couldn't give specifics because it was a criminal case.
People around the office were excited that RMA had received a $50,000 grant for abatement. At the same time, Borba said she got an estimate of more than $15,000 for cleaning up this parcel. It was such a mess they would need to bring in bulldozers and dump trucks. And she said instituting a lien on the property could take four to five years. In this case the owners had died and the status of the property was in limbo.
She recalled her success in Apache Junction. "We found we could clean up a neighborhood in half the time and saved so many man-hours . . . One of the things I see they haven't got a clue on is crime prevention," she said in reference to the county's approach to cleaning up rundown neighborhoods. "Neighborhood enhancement grants are available. That's what we used. [The county is] giving grants to communities, but not meeting with communities, not directing organizations. [In Arizona] we worked closely with police departments. We would find a place large enough for people to meet. We even had them catered." Borba said business owners will donate if they see it will improve the community and benefit their businesses.
"We did a cleanup in a big travel trailer park, with a big, big problem." She said there were many health hazards, and they went in and cleaned up the park in six months. Borba said that did not mean forcing residents to relocate. "I've seen a mother and three children living in a travel trailer, but not taking public assistance. There are a lot of nice people out there, people who have mobile homes they will donate."
But she said there was another park they had to shut down. They had to shut off the power in 110 degree heat, because of illegal and unsafe connections to power sources for 20-30 people. "If people feel hopeless, defeated, that reflects where they live. When they begin to see hope they begin to take ownership.
"We're the bad guys who go out when they won't comply." She said they photograph the violations but generally don't make contact with the people involved.
Her final thoughts were that the RMA needed to run code compliance more like a business, and less like a government bureaucracy. "I have hundreds or cases we could be doing. Mostly we're paper pushers."