A Saint John realtor says the issue of derelict buildings needs to be a higher priority for the city's legal department and officials should move more quickly in dealing with them.

Bob McVicar's comments come after a fire started in a vacant building on Mecklenburg Street early Sunday morning, then spread to the adjacent apartment building, forcing 23 people out of their homes.

Both buildings were gutted and have been demolished.

McVicar says the building where the fire started had been empty for years and the property's owners were served work papers in 2009 to bring it up to code.

"The compliance timeline on that work order from '09 in 60 days," he said. "The fact the building sat there that long, to me, is a failure of the system.

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Realtor Bob McVicar says penalties need to be imposed more quickly when work orders are ignored. (Facebook)

"The order is clear. The legal department was responsible at some point. The penalties are clear, the timeline is clear — the fact that it sat there for four years means someone didn't pick it up after building inspection did its job."

McVicar says when such orders are ignored, the penalties need to be more immediate.

"I don't know if we need more lawyers, maybe we need better-focused lawyers. As one who does lots of business in the south end in terms of property, there is plenty of inspections going on, more than ever. I don't think the issue is there, the issue is enforcement," he said.

"The building inspection department can do their inspections, they can issue the order, but when there's non-compliance, the legal department has to pick that up."

The city spends more than $500,000 every year monitoring dangerous and vacant buildings and enforcing its unsightly premises bylaw.

The 2013 operating budget, approved last month by council, sets aside more money for the demolition of derelict buildings.