Cleanup Duty: Ironton City Health Department working to address problems

Published 10:17 am Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fred Schaefer steps out of a gray pickup truck and into an ocean of waist-high grass surrounding a home.

As the environmental officer for the Ironton City Health Department, Schaefer is used to sights like this. He and a small staff spend most of their time from March until October managing yards like this one or those with piles of trash.

They also clear the problem areas or mow the grass if homeowners do not comply with regulations.

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Compared to some other yards he has seen, this yard is mild.

“Unless it’s at least waist-high on me we figure we’ve got a pretty good day,” he said.

Trash, on the other hand, is more of a problem.

“When we get the trash calls, those are nasty,” Schaefer said. “You can’t really appreciate some of the things we’ve been in to clean up.”

Schaefer remembers one case when a homeowner had been dumping used litter box filler at the edge of his property. When Schaefer arrived there was a pile of cat box filler 4 feet wide and 9 feet high.

“Every cat in the neighborhood thought that was the most wonderful thing in the world,” he said.

Fortunately for Schaefer, the homeowner cleaned up the cat box filler so his staff did not have to.

If everything goes perfectly, the health department can respond to complaints and have problem yards cleaned up within two weeks of the complaint. Sometimes it takes longer depending on when the homeowners receive the certified letters the department sends.

Residents do not have to leave their names while making complaints. Letters are sent to homeowners with lawns that have at least 8 inches of grass.

The health department typically charges over $200 for cleaning or mowing the lawns, though there are additional charges depending on how many loads of trash are hauled away and the equipment used to mow the grass. The charges are tacked on to the homeowner’s taxes.

“You can ask somebody to do something and you can tell people to do something, but a lot of times until you get in their billfolds they don’t really pay attention,” Schaefer said.

At most, the department will mow problem lawns two or three times each year.

Besides being an eyesore, unkempt lawns can be a problem to people with allergies. They can also be home to all sorts of mosquitoes, insects and poison ivy.

“There was one house that had (poison ivy) vines as big as my wrist,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer has been at the health department for about 5 years. While he’s assisted for a while now, this is his first year as environmental officer. The Ironton native spent 36 years as a police officer in Columbus before becoming a staff member at the health department, where he also serves as deputy registrar.

Schaefer said his favorite part is seeing neighbors appreciate what he does.

“You actually get to make some people happy because you’re getting (the grass cut),” he said. “I didn’t see a whole lot of smiles as a police officer.”