State should bolster code laws
The tumult over Tampa code violations by prominent Republican activist Hoe Brown exposed how state laws handicap the fight on blight and crime. Revisions are in order. As the Tribune's Kevin Wiatrowski found recently, state law requires property owners to get a chance to correct code violations before facing a hearing or fine. Thus landowners can continually violate the rules without consequence. They only need to pay the fine - if they get caught. The Tribune found at least 58 citations on Brown's city properties in the last 10 years. He addressed the citations and never had to pay a fine.Susan Johnson Velez, president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, told Wiatrowski, "There are a fair number of people for whom it's just the cost of doing business." As things stand, the prospect of a meaningful penalty is slight. Consider: Code enforcement officers do have the option of sending a serious chronic offender a notice to appear before a judge, rather than the Code Enforcement Board that normally hears cases. The judge can impose a 60-day jail sentence, but that rightly is almost never done for an offense that is not classified as a crime. Yet the maximum fine the judge can impose for the neglect that ruins neighborhoods is only $500, not a powerful deterrent for landowners with numerous rental properties. Lawmakers should increase that to at least $5,000. They also should work with local officials on improving a regulatory system that is cumbersome and time-consuming. Ernie Mueller, assistant city attorney in Tampa, chronicles a typical case: A code enforcement officer observes a violation and notifies the homeowner, who is given time - usually a month or so - to correct the matter. If it isn't, the violation is scheduled for a Code Enforcement Board hearing, which, depending on the backlog, could take 60 more days. If the board affirms the violation, it may give the offender another 30 days to respond. Anytime prior to the deadline that the offender fixes the violation, it goes away without penalty. Only the offender who insists on not responding faces the prospect of serious fines - perhaps $1,000 a day or more. But that is a rarity. All this seems indulgent, but it is designed to protect homeowners, many poor and elderly. The lengthy system is more problematic when it comes to those absentee landowners who allow their properties to deteriorate without regard for their tenants or neighbors. Council Chairman Charlie Miranda is correct when he says the broken system must be fixed, and council members seem to agree the city needs more inspectors, collaboration with the police and better use of technology. But state lawmakers need to help. Should they provide heavier fines for the judicial hearing option, local officials would have an enforcement tool that could get quick results. Nobody wants to harass homeowners or confiscate property, but negligent landowners ruin neighborhoods and property values - an offense no one should treat lightly.