For weeks, Diana Viet had watched the pile of garbage between her North Street home and the two-unit apartment next door gradually building up. Black bag after black bag of garbage, pieces of cardboard, bundles of newspaper, and even an old mattress was slowly filling the narrow space between the two buildings, all of it hidden from the street by a high wood fence.
Viet says she doesn’t know the building landlord, although she doesn’t believe he actually lives in the building. She says the problem seemed to begin earlier this past summer when new tenants moved into one of the two units, and much of the garbage seemed to be of the clean-up-and-remodelling variety.
Fearing a growing fire hazard, Viet acted on her sense of civic duty—and her sense of self-security—and made a bylaw complaint to HRM Services. Over the next six weeks, Viet found her fear of fire being replaced with frustration over the grinding bureaucracy that is the world of HRM by-laws.
“When I first contacted the city in late July or the first week of August, they told me that the address that I was giving them didn’t exist, that they had sent someone out and they couldn’t find the place,” says Viet. “Do they think I’m crazy, that I don’t know there is a house next door? So as I was talking to the operator, I walked outside with my cordless and stood in front of the place and read off the numbers and described the place.”
What Viet can’t understand is why no ever came to ask her directly about the problem.
“I gave them my address, and told them that if someone comes down to my place and rings my bell, I will show them what the problem is. But no one ever came to see me. I kept calling, and they kept telling me the address doesn’t exist.”
At press time, city spokesperson Deborah Story was waiting to hear back from the bylaw management team, while calls to Halifax Police bylaw enforcement line went unanswered.
Since her concern was fire hazard, Viet’s next step was to contact the HRM Fire Department. Although the person she spoke with seemed to sympathize, she was told it was a bylaw enforcement issue, and unless there was an actual fire, there was nothing they could do, something that is confirmed by Fire Department spokesperson Mike LeRue.
“We do get a few of these kinds of calls, but yes, all we can do is pass the information on to bylaw enforcement,” he says. “Certainly, if we’re out doing a fire inspection somewhere, and we see what we think is a problem we’ll suggest to the homeowner that they should clean it up, and a note on it will go to bylaw enforcement.”
Viet says she understood the fire department’s position, although it didn’t solve her garbage problem. But six weeks, a couple dozen calls and two “reference numbers” later, there was finally a break through.
“I kept on calling, and finally on September 12 they told me yes, they were aware of the problem,” she says. “I wrote it down, and what they said was: ‘The bylaw enforcement officer found this to be a valid issue.’ Well, no kidding.”
Viet was also informed that the garbage would be cleaned up by September 19. That day came and went with no change, but a week later, she says, all the garbage bags, but not the cardboard or mattress, was gone.
The whole episode has left Viet, a long-time business owner, questioning the efficiency, or lack thereof, of HRM Services and how they handle bylaw complaints.
“The biggest problem I have as a taxpayer is that through the whole thing I found them to be very dismissive, like I didn’t know what I was talking about, and why was I bothering them,” she says. “I mean, what kind of training do these people get? As far as I’m concerned, if the city was a private business they’d go bankrupt and they’d all be out of a job.”