City and law enforcement officials continue to work on cleaning up the area of a closed auto dealership in Watseka.
At Tuesday’s code enforcement meeting, aldermen and law enforcement officials talked about the problems being encountered at the old Sleepy’s Auto Sales property.
Alderman Mark Garfied distributed photos to aldermen he said were taken at the property. He said code enforcement officer Bill Stanley, who could not be at the Tuesday meeting, had asked him to bring up the matter.
“These were taken 10 to 12 days ago,” he said. “As you can see, the first picture is diapers in the back of a truck. The second picture is a vehicle with most of its windows busted out. The third picture is various vehicles. The fourth picture is where they piled tires behind one of the buildings. The fifth picture is more of the vehicles. The last picture is a van next to one of his buildings that is currently being used by people sleeping in it.
“He’s reached out to the federal EPA. They said worse case scenario is they could come in and clean it up and it would be on our dime,” Garfield said, noting that the state EPA and state health department both basically said it is a local problem. He said the local health department said they could clean it up and the city could put a lien on the property.
“The problem is this property has so much contaminant. I’m sure the ground is contaminated with oil, gas and other chemicals. We could run into some serious money on it,” he said.
Alderman Dave Mayotte, who was filling in as building inspector for a time, went to condemn the building in July, Garfield said. “At that time he (Mayotte) talked with the owner who told us basically he would see us in court and slammed the door in his face.”
Garfield said Stanely has been fining the owner. He said Stanley would like to have permission from the council to contact Rep. Tom Bennett to see if there is anything he can do to help the situation.
“There’s obviously more stuff since then down there,” Garfield said, noting that especially on hot days, the property smells of urine.”
Alderwoman Monna Ulfers asked, “How come Sleepy doesn’t have to be accountable when if that was your business you would have to be accountable? Why can’t we make him do something because he knows what he’s doing is not right. Everybody is upset about it. Why can’t we treat him like we treat everybody else?”
Garfield said that would be a question for the city attorney. “We are already fining him,” he said. “The state has shut him down so he’s not selling any more cars. From what we’ve seen so far, he’s going to be the person who we’re going to be in court over.”
Police Chief Jeremy Douglas agreed. “You’re right. We keep getting calls about people sleeping there.”
Ulfers said when she drove by Tuesday evening there were people getting in and out of the back seats of cars.
Douglas said police have had numerous calls about people sleeping in the vehicles. There are times when one drives by in the mornings, he said, and people have opened the trunks of vehicles and are getting dressed, using the trunks as a closet of sorts.
As soon as they get one problem stopped, he said, other problems occur, noting that there are also people parking on the vacant property next door and living. Some have air mattresses and other items set up. He said people will say they have permission to be on the property from the owners, but that isn’t true. He said, too, that people are not only living in the vehicles, but also on the ground in between the cars.
Aldermen asked if the cars could be moved to alleviate the problem. Douglas said it isn’t that simple.
That would take making sure the city has a place to put the cars and keep them safe and would also take having a hearing officer to preside over a hearing on the matter. He said the current impound area is not big enough to house all the vehicles.
“I know all of you are as frustrated as we are on this,” he said, noting that the police and city are trying to work with the individuals within the law.
“I think this is just going to take time. This is one person who is going to fight the system,” he said.
Alderman Benny Marcier said half the vehicles are in parts.
“We could easily fine him $1,000 a day and he isn’t going to pay it,” Garfield said.
“I don’t know why he doesn’t just junk those cars and get rid of them,” Douglas said, noting that he has seen that people have been using the service area of the property to work on vehicles.
Garfield said there is no good solution. “I would like to give Bill permission to reach out to some of our state representatives to see if they can help and continue to resolve the problem through any legal means,” he said.
Douglas was instructed to talk with city attorney Joe Cainkar. All agreed to continue working on as many ways to alleviate the problem as can be done.