Saying it's their only legal recourse against neighborhood nuisances until the city adopts a new ordinance, activists Butch Palmer and Lori Davis filed Magistrate Court claims Monday against two Harrisburg landlords, alleging that one property is a magnet for vagrants and another is a "known neighborhood drug house."
The suits seek to recoup their contributions to the cost -- about $8,000 -- of bringing a consultant to town last month to talk to an Augusta Commission committee that is drafting an ordinance to hold property owners accountable for tenants' criminal behavior. Davis is an appointed member of the panel.
Palmer said he also wants compensation for his rental property losses caused by the perception of crime in the neighborhood, something he intends to prove in court. Another reason for filing, he said, is to show the public how difficult it is to combat undesirable elements in a neighborhood under the existing city code.
"I'm not litigious," Palmer said. "I want them out of there. I'm going to put just as much pressure on them as possible, and this is the only legal mechanism we have."
Palmer's claim, for $15,000, is against Joe Smith, the owner of the red commercial building at 1739 Fenwick St. where Mercy Ministries runs a day shelter for the homeless and other outreach programs for the poor.
With the new Kroc Center expected to spur a renaissance in the former mill village, some business interests would like to see Mercy Ministries move out of Harrisburg.
Windsor Jewelers Chief Executive Donnie Thompson and the Rev. Kelly McKnight, of Bible Deliverance Temple, are behind a push to open a new day shelter downtown centralizing citywide homeless services under one roof, but Mercy Ministries Executive Director Fran Oliver said she's not interested in being part of it.
Davis' claim, for $5,000, is against John B. Weigle Jr., the owner of a rental house at 223 Eve St. that has been the subject of protests by the Concerned Citizens of Harrisburg group.
The group picketed outside the house in a Fourth of July march against drug dealers and absentee landlords. In September, it protested outside Weigle's Forest Hills home and outside his workplace at Dawson Taylor & Co. on Wheeler Road.
"Based on county nuisance and abatement laws, he should have taken care of these issues, which he has been unwilling to do," says the complaint by Davis, who wouldn't comment further Monday. "The (Richmond County Sheriff's Office) has had excessive calls to this property. The property is also a known neighborhood drug house."
According to sheriff's office records, deputies have been called to 223 Eve St. 41 times since Jan. 1, 2008, over such issues as domestic violence, fights, arguments and suspicious situations. No calls have been logged since Dec. 22.
There were 160 calls for police to Mercy Ministries and the adjacent boardinghouse between Jan. 1, 2008, and mid-February. Analysis of phone logs, however, found that at least 135 could be traced back to the ministry or staff and volunteers' cell phones, and only three led to arrests -- two for assault and one for cocaine possession, which involved a woman parked outside the ministry.
Once the complaints are served on Smith and Weigle by the marshal's office, they will have 45 days to file a response.
Neither returned messages left by phone and e-mail Monday. Other than one missed call, Weigle has not responded to numerous requests for comment since July.
In an interview last week, Smith, who owns six other properties in Harrisburg, said he could see both sides in the dispute over Mercy Ministries. The neighborhood is full of drugs and derelicts, he said, and that wouldn't change if the ministry were shut down.
However, he said, if the city passes a Chronic Nuisance Properties Ordinance and his building is deemed in violation, he would "abide by the law."
"But let's be fair here," Smith said last week. "The reason that Fran is still here is that she is not breaking the rules."