Searsucker Restaurant at Market and Fifth which temporarily suspended business in July is boarded up in downtown San Diego.
A boarded-up restaurant at Market and Fifth streets. File photo by Chris Stone

Concerns raised a year ago by the city auditor over how the San Diego Police Department handles vandalized properties after a break-in will be addressed by elected leaders at a City Council committee meeting this week.

At issue in last year’s report is what’s known as “board-up” service, provided by a company the police contact when they find a property unsecured following a break-in, or in some cases when officers have to knock down a door to get into a home or business.

Police have used Jacksonville, FL-based 1-800-BoardUp since 2014. A complaint about the service overcharging business owners and residents led to an investigation by the city auditor last year.

The auditor’s conclusion was that 1-800-BoardUp “may not be the best qualified and may not be charging consistent, reasonable and competitive rates.”

Fast forward to next Wednesday, when the the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee will consider approving amendments to the city’s municipal code on how to address boarding up unsecured property and how to properly charge the owners.

The staff report highlights the serious consequences of vandalized properties, noting that “leaving structures unsecured has an overall detrimental effect upon the health, safety, and welfare of the city’s residents, businesses, visitors, and the general public.”

Responding to the weaknesses that the auditor exposed, the proposed amendments provide a specific procedure for securing properties and subsequently charging property owners. For example, police officers and firefighters will not have to alert the responsible party for the property when immediate action is necessary or no one is able or willing to secure the property within 30 minutes after they are contacted.

Such a procedure was not in place a year ago. In addition, the police and fire departments will work with city purchasing on a competitive process for selecting a vendor qualified to board up properties. While these actions do not cover all of the city auditor’s recommendations, they are, according to a city staffer, “a good start”.

San Diegan Mike Biltucci described his experience with 1-800-BoardUp after the front door to his rental property was “destroyed” by a police officer responding to a “check the welfare” call in April 2019. What’s odd, said Biltucci, is that the police had visited his property the night before and contacted him to let them into the house.

He did, and after the officers walked through the house they left because the renter was in the hospital. But the next morning, another police unit showed up responding to the same welfare check and broke down the door.

On top of that, Biltucci said he was billed by the 1-800-BoardUp for $800 to nail up one sheet of plywood with two 2×4’s across the entrance of the front door. The invoice also shows he was charged for two service technicians for two hours, as well as $92.35 for the use of a generator.

When he complained it was unreasonable and said he wouldn’t pay, 1-800 Board Up said it would put a lien on the property. Biltucci eventually negotiated the price down to $600. He later tried to get reimbursed by the city but was denied, he said.

He said he was not happy about the charges and wondered, “How can they charge me for work done to my property without asking me?”

There was no response from the company when asked about Biltucci’s case and the auditor’s report.

Of note in the council committee staff report, since January a provision has been implemented under which any time an officer needs a property secured by a vendor he or she must first clear it with the police lieutenant on duty. Since then, the report noted, “there has been an average of 2.2 callouts per month (11 total) requiring service.”

“You will note they are much smaller numbers than the earlier auditor’s report showing a total of 184 board-up requests in 2019 and 118 in the first months of 2020,” according to the staff report.

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.