TAMPA — After taking office in 2011, Mayor Bob Buckhorn pressed code enforcement officials to write more civil citations as a way to get simple enforcement cases cleared up rather than let them linger in limbo at the Code Enforcement Board.
After that order, the number of civil citations and warnings jumped 45 percent from 2010. They’ve hovered around 6,000 a year ever since.
Buckhorn reported last week that 85 percent of people who receive warnings about code violations fix their problems before the city takes further action.
The civil citation became code enforcement’s preferred tool in December 2008 under Mayor Pam Iorio. The city has issued more than 24,000 tickets since then, the vast majority under Buckhorn.
Buckhorn said the threat of a trip to court — as opposed to the slow-motion code board — has inspired most violators to clean up their property with only a warning.
The remaining 3,212 cases were escalated to a civil citation, resulting in a potential appearance before a judge.
“He wanted us to really concentrate on those processes that would resolve the problems quickly,” said Jake Slater, who oversees code enforcement.
Until then, code violators typically learned they had a problem when a certified letter from the city arrived in the mail inviting them to a hearing at Code Enforcement Board, Slater said.
The code board had a reputation for taking months to resolve violations.
Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t resolve their problem got a citation and appeared in court mixed in with other civil or criminal cases.
“It’s not a cure for every type of violation, but particularly for violations like overgrowth, accumulations or minor structural violations, this is the best tool in our arsenal,” Buckhorn said in a written statement.
Buckhorn spent much of last year putting more teeth into the city’s code enforcement system.
Last fall, he convinced the chief judge of the Hillsborough County Circuit Court to create monthly dockets just for code violations.
In the four months since the first hearings, more than 800 property owners have been called into either civil or criminal proceedings for code violations.
Buckhorn started tightening up the code enforcement system last spring when he merged the city’s code enforcement division and Clean City division to create the Neighborhood Enhancement Department.
The change effectively disbanded Clean City after a city audit found workers made questionable purchases with the division’s credit card; showed lax accounting for equipment and workers’ time; tolerated the theft of equipment; and were slow to respond to residents’ calls for customer service.
The new Neighborhood Enhancement agency divides the city into four districts with a fifth “rapid response” team to address issues citywide.
The department was put to the test last summer and fall in the wake of a scandal involving then-Tampa Port Authority Chairman William “Hoe” Brown, who was found in July to be running a squalid, illegal trailer park on land in Seminole Heights.
Brown was found to have received more than 50 warnings for code violations over a decade, but avoided becoming labeled a repeat offender by fixing them before they could go to the Code Enforcement board or a court hearing. State law said only those two venues can declare someone a repeat offender, opening them up for harsher penalties.
Soon after, Buckhorn announced intensive sweeps of several city neighborhoods — Grant Park, parts of Old Seminole Heights and North Tampa — thick with absentee landlords and code violations.
What began as a 30-day operation grew into half a year. During that time, city code officers did 4,157 inspections and wrote 906 tickets for everything from overgrown grass to deteriorating buildings.
Buckhorn also added new officers to the city’s code enforcement staff and cross trained solid waste inspectors to handle residential code violations. He persuaded Hillsborough County Circuit Court to create two dockets just for code enforcement violations.
City Council also created a system the city will use to track chronic code violators.
Buckhorn said the citation system reduces the number of times inspectors have to return to a problem property, from four or five visits under the Code Enforcement board to two visits after a warning or citation.
The citation system also gives the city a way to deal with chronic violators more efficiently, Buckhorn said.
“With the ultimate goal in mind of rectifying the violations, it allows us to move quickly and helps us to force the issue with flagrant violators by sending them to court,” he said.