TAMPA — An audit of Tampa’s Neighborhood Empowerment division has found the agency failed to collect more than $450,000 in registration fees for foreclosed properties this year.
The report prompted a dressing down of division director Jake Slater during Thursday’s Tampa City Council meeting. Slater’s division oversees the city’s foreclosure registry as part of its code enforcement work.
“What could we accomplish with an additional half a million dollars?” Councilwoman Lisa Montelione asked Slater. “You’re asking for more money when nearly half a million dollars is going uncollected.”
The revelation comes as Mayor Bob Buckhorn is recommending adding $350,000 to the city’s 2014 code enforcement budget to better enforce laws that require property owners to keep their homes and rental units up to city standards.
Buckhorn last month launched a 30-day code-enforcement sweep of several city neighborhoods aimed at bringing code scofflaws into line.
The sweep grew out of the discovery that then-Tampa Port Authority Chairman William “Hoe” Brown had multiple violations on property he owned in Old Seminole Heights. Brown resigned over the scandal.
Even before the sweep, Tampa was keeping close tabs on foreclosed houses. The city created the foreclosure registry in 2009, as the housing crisis drove up the number of foreclosures.
The registry helps the city track the properties to ensure they are properly maintained and don’t become blights on their neighborhoods.
Financial institutions are supposed to pay a fee and register their foreclosed properties within the city if the houses are vacant.
Buckhorn’s code sweep included 75 properties on the registry. They were ticketed for being unsecured and poorly maintained. The owners could face fines.
The audit found the city collected more than $411,000 this year in foreclosure registry fees, levied each year to register foreclosed buildings. But auditors found 2,034 cases where no money had been collected. The registry covers vacant foreclosed properties.
“It seems we don’t have any collection efforts,” Montelione said.
Auditors reported the city’s attempts to collect on unpaid registry fees went no further than sending out delinquency notices.
Montelione said that wasn’t enough.
“I know if I fall delinquent two days on my credit card bill, I hear from the bank really fast,” she said.
Buckhorn defended the city’s handling of the registry.
“Understand the people we’re dealing with are largely out of state banks,” Buckhorn said. “Even though technically they owe us money, we are never going to see that money — ever.”
While the ordinance creating the registry says it can be enforced by “any of the enforcement means available” to the city, Buckhorn said the registry, for all practical purposes, is voluntary. The banks have to notify the city of their foreclosures.
“This is not something we can force them to do,” Buckhorn said. “If they don’t do it, there’s nothing we can do to them.”
At Thursday’s council meeting, assistant city attorney Ernie Mueller, who handles code cases, disputed the audit’s findings.
Some of the money the audit found due hasn’t been collected because the properties are no longer part of the registry. Because owners don’t always remove their properties from the registry, it is hard to know exactly how much money is going uncollected, he said.
“They’re supposed to de-register,” Mueller said.
Montelione said it is not the city’s job to track which properties are and are not on the registry.
“The responsibility is on the people doing the foreclosing,” she said.
Councilman Frank Reddick urged Slater to explore hiring a collection agency to pursue those unpaid fees. Slater said the city has tried that through other departments with limited success.
That didn’t satisfy council members.
They asked Slater to return Sept. 26 with a plan for collecting the missing money.
“It makes no sense for us to continue to do things if we cannot collect on what we’re owed,” Councilman Mike Suarez said. “We’re not going to get 100 percent of our money back, but we should do better than we are now.”