Tampa calls out code enforcement
TAMPA - In the wake of revelations a squalid trailer park operated for a year in Seminole Heights, Tampa City Council members are questioning why code enforcement officers didn't act sooner and whether police officers can help head off similar violations in the future.
"Here's what I'd like to figure out," councilman Mike Suarez said this week. "Did the police already know that there were squalid conditions out there? And if so, why wasn't it reported to code enforcement?"
Tampa Police Department records show officers responded often to calls from three properties owned by former Tampa Port Authority Chairman William "Hoe" Brown, at the corner of North Florida Avenue and West Stanley Street.
Brown owns a six-unit motel that faces Florida. Around the corner on Stanley, he owns neighboring lots that include a stucco house subdivided into apartments. For the past year, Brown ran an illegal trailer park on the site as well.
In mid-2012, Brown installed the mobile homes - five construction-type trailers subdivided into 10 studio apartments. The first police call to the trailer park was in May of that year, according to Tampa police records.
After complaints mounted from residents and neighbors, city inspectors informed Brown this spring that his trailer park wasn't allowed under the zoning designation for his property. The city gave Brown until the end of June to correct the problem.
But by the Fourth of July weekend, the trailer park was still in place and residents were complaining again about their living conditions. City officials who visited the property after the holiday said one apartment was crawling with cockroaches.
Brown removed the trailers July 9, the day after city officials visited and he reimbursed each of his tenants $1,500, or about three months' rent.
Brown resigned his position on the Port Authority board on Friday.
The scandal drew attention to the city's code enforcement division.
Councilman Frank Reddick plans to call code enforcement officials before the council to explain why they didn't act against Brown sooner. He also wants to know what the city can do to bolster its code enforcement officers.
Reddick's district, which includes East Tampa, Seminole Heights and Ybor City, has seen a number of recent code violators, including one landowner who built part of his house into a city-owned alley and another who operates a truck repair business in a residential area.
Reddick has become an outspoken critic of the code enforcement division as a result.
"Basically, why are we reactive instead of being pro-active?" Reddick said this week.
Reddick missed the deadline to get his questioning of code enforcement officials on Thursday's city council agenda. He plans to schedule the review for next week or the first meeting in August.
Meantime, council members will give final approval on Thursday to a measure strengthening the city's code enforcement director hand. In cases where public health is threatened, the director will be able to order a building demolished or removed rather than sending the case through a special magistrate.
Code enforcement officials may not be the only ones called on the carpet.
Suarez wants to hear from Tampa police about why officers didn't raise a red flag about Brown's trailer park. During the time the trailers were in place, police were called to Brown's properties at North Florida and West Stanley more than 110 times, including once for an overdose death.
"It's not the job of police to do code enforcement. I understand that," Suarez said. "But they must have known there were squalid conditions out there. There's got to be some way in which we cross-reference those things that are important to the city."
Broken windows theory - the notion that minor problems like vandalism left untended lead to major ones like crime - is part of policing, too, Suarez said.
With the city's 2014 budget scheduled for consideration this summer, Suarez, Reddick and other council members have said the city needs to put more weight behind its code enforcement division.
Will that mean more money?
Mayor Bob Buckhorn said last week he has been considering just that.
Suarez said it is not clear where the money will come from, given the city's $12 million budget deficit in 2014.
"I'm definitely in favor of giving those guys the tools they need to do their jobs," Suarez said. "How do you find it in the budget?"