City needs to get tough with code violators
The high-profile crackdown the city of Tampa launched over the weekend on slumlords and code violators is welcomed, as is Mayor Bob Buckhorn's promise to "get this place cleaned up." But Buckhorn and his team need to remain committed to the task and invest the resources necessary to keep urban blight in check long after the issue has faded from the headlines. That is going to take additional personnel, technology, penalties and better coordination between police and city inspectors. The mayor Sunday launched a 30-day initiative to target flagrant code violations in urban neighborhoods, promising the city would be "going in, kicking butt and taking names."The action came in response to revelations that Hoe Brown, a prominent real-estate investor, had illegally established a trailer park on his property in north Seminole Heights, a working-class neighborhood. Residents and neighbors complained of crime and filth. Brown removed the trailers and resigned from the Tampa Port Authority. But if Brown appeared to be negligent, the city also appeared less than vigilant. Jake Slater, director of the city's Neighborhood Services, candidly acknowledges the incident revealed "cracks in the system." It's not as if inspectors have been sitting on their hands. With at least 6,000 vacant homes, the two-dozen or so inspectors face a daunting challenge keeping up with blighted properties. Buckhorn plans to help in the upcoming budget by filling two vacant positions and adding a couple more. And, as Buckhorn points out, the process is slow and "painful." Civil citations, which start at $75 and increase to $400 for the third offense, take time to get results. When there is a threat to public health and safety, the city is able to pursue a violation in court, where judges can impose stiff fines. Slater says heavy fines are rare. City officials work with poor or elderly landowners not able to keep up with things. The real abuse is committed by landowners who allow buildings to deteriorate and trash to accumulate, creating an atmosphere of squalor and crime. Lawmakers should consider bolstering penalties on such abuses. As Buckhorn says, "Even when they are cited, there is not a hammer to hit them with." The Brown incident exposed another problem. The police had received dozens of complaints about the property, yet inspectors were apparently unaware of the illegal trailer park and the problems it was causing. City Council members Frank Reddick and Mike Suarez rightly question why there isn't better communication between police and inspectors. Slater, a highly regarded former police officer, promises to develop an effective communication protocol. Councilwoman Lisa Montelione points out that the agency's lack of technical tools - no tablets, outdated software and such - handicaps inspectors. That is no surprise, given the city's recent lean budgets, but should be an area of future investment. Slater says new software is being implemented that will allow public access to records. Code enforcement is hardly the most exciting of city responsibilities, yet requiring properties to be properly maintained is essential to deterring crime and protecting residents' property, health and quality of life. Buckhorn needs to ensure the city continues his "take-no-prisoner" response to violators beyond the next 30 days.