Striking a balance between encouragement and enforcement with downtown building owners has proven challenging for Litchfield City Council members.

But on Monday, the Council agreed to have city staff send a letter to all downtown building owners telling them they might be eligible for a grant to improve their buildings while reminding them to take care of possible code violations at their buildings.

The façade grant program provides up to $8,000 in matching funding for downtown building owners over the next three years. Funding requests are retroactive to Jan. 1 this year, and the program will run through Dec. 31, 2023.

A building improvement program has been available in some form since at least 2013. The city offered up to $1,000 in matching grant dollars for buildings within the Downtown Historic Commercial District from 2013 to 2016, and an Exterior Building Improvement Grant offered up to $5,000 in matching dollars from 2017 to 2019.

Getting to the current approach of grants with code compliance took some time, as Council members engaged in a debate that included almost as many divergent philosophies as there were participants.

The one common thread, however, was the idea that downtown buildings and their surrounding property needed some attention.

That idea was supported by a two-page handout that listed 36 downtown properties, all of them with at least some cosmetic or safety issue — from minor brick deterioration, to broken windows and lights, to weeds, junk vehicles and tires. City Administrator Dave Cziok explained the list was compiled by two city staff members who spent an afternoon walking main street and the alleys behind main street to observe and record “building issues” or “other issues.” Many of the items listed would qualify as city code violations and could incur fines, Cziok said.

The topic arose two weeks ago as the City Council discussed a façade grant program that would provide up to $8,000 to owners who made qualifying improvements to the exteriors of their buildings. It would be a renewal of a past façade grant program that offered $5,000 in matching funds for similar downtown building improvements.

However, Cziok expressed discomfort and uncertainty about having city staff award the grants because of some negative feedback he received under the previous program, after grants were awarded for improvements but there remained code violations or unsightliness at properties that received the grants.

That brought the review of the downtown state of affairs by the two city staff members, and their the two-page report that Cziok shared Monday.

Given his understanding of the previous discussion, Cziok said, if any of the owners on the list applied for a façade grant they would not receive the funding until issues on the list were addressed.

Mayor Keith Johnson said he didn’t think that went far enough. While such an approach might get some properties — those that applied for grants — cleaned up and repaired, it could potentially leave many problems unaddressed by building owners who did not seek a grant.

“If someone wants to be funded … we’re only going to worry about those buildings?” Johnson said. “Why aren’t we worried about all buildings downtown? It shouldn’t be only the ones that want (a grant). If we ignore the ones that don’t go for a COA (grant), what good is it going to do us?”

Johnson suggested that all building owners on the property review list receive a letter explaining their potential code violation and directing them to clean up their property. But that approach drew concern from Council member Ron Dingmann.

“We have ordinance violations throughout this entire community,” Dingmann said. “I have a problem with just picking on property owners in downtown.”

Rather than sending letters only to downtown businesses, it would be more fair to send them to every property owner in the city who violated city code, which would be a “monumental task,” Dingmann added.

“This is a way we can prove to the community that we are concerned about nuisance issues,” Johnson replied.

Council member John Carlson agreed, saying that “I’m frustrated that we’re not going to tackle that monumental task. If it’s an ordinance and they don’t follow it … if we’re going to have a rule, we need to enforce it, is my mindset.”

Council member Darlene Kotelnicki seemed to try to strike a middle ground, agreeing that code violations, wherever they were, needed to be addressed, both by the city and property owners. However, when it comes to downtown property owners who might seek a façade grant, “transparency” is important, she said.

“Let’s start with what we agree on,” Kotelnicki said. “We all seem to agree they shouldn’t be getting city money when they’re out of compliance. The question is, how far do we go? We have to define the process … (and) need to notify property owners.

“I don’t want to get into a complaint basis. I don’t buy into this complaint basis,” Kotelnicki said. “We have to make them aware.”