Scientology, others let code fines mount in Clearwater
CLEARWATER - The city of Clearwater is so strapped for cash that leaders have eliminated 86 jobs, cut library hours, and raised the property tax rate. Parks and recreation workers even stopped flying the American flag for a few days over 13 city landmarks to save a couple of bucks. But one step the city staff has not taken to help make ends meet is forcing city code violators, including the Church of Scientology, to pay the $3.4 million in fines they owe. The city counts 43 unpaid liens stemming from code violations by property owners, some of them on the books for years and some growing by hundreds of dollars a day."There's ways of collecting that money," said Herb Quintero, owner of the Complete Angler tackle shop north of the downtown district. "If they choose not to, it's a frivolous fine." Quintero says he knows all about frivolous fines. The city penalized him $690 for a fish mural painted on the side of his wall in violation of Clearwater's sign ordinance. In this case the city did take Quintero to court, rather than put the matter before the code enforcement board for review, he said. So why go after some and not others? "You could pay for a lot of flags," Quintero said. "You could pay for a lot of libraries, a lot of parks." City spokesman Joelle Castelli said Quintero wound up in court because he reneged on agreements to resolve his dispute. But in the end, he prevailed, arguing his First Amendment right to free expression. He won $55,000 from the city for his costs. All told, during the first 11 months of the current fiscal year, Clearwater has collected $92,264 in code enforcement fines by going to court. But the four biggest fines pending have been building for years and amount to more than $200,000 each. Allison V. Thompson is at the top of the list. She's been disputing an unpermitted deck extension on the back of her house at 2271 Springrain Dr. for more than three years and owes taxpayers more than $290,000. Thompson says she and her architect are still trying to resolve the issue with city inspectors. Next is the Church of Scientology, with $287,000 in liens. Construction began in 1999 and stopped in 2004 on the church's 380,000-square-foot Mecca Building at 215 S. Ft. Harrison. Two years later, the city's municipal code enforcement board began assessing fines because the church was out of compliance with a permit that required active construction to finish the exterior shell. The debt has been growing at a rate of $250 a day since June 26, 2006, according to city records. But like the other code enforcement liens recorded in official records, no one is trying to collect this debt. City policy is to refrain from pursuing construction permit fines until the permit comes back into compliance, which hasn't happened. The city even granted the church two new construction permits this year without resolving the fine over the first one. "They owe the money in question," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "The question is what will they owe in total by the time they actually come into compliance." Hibbard said he expects the church to complete work on the Mecca building's exterior within four to six weeks, at which time he says the church will formally come into compliance and the fines will become due. "They have a right to go to the code enforcement board and ask for a reduction in those fines." Hibbard said. "Our guidance to the code enforcement board is they need to be paid in full." Hibbard said he and City Manager Bill Horne held a private meeting with Scientology's board Chairman David Miscavige about a year and a half ago and told him the fines are not negotiable. "I've made that known to their leadership that we expect those fines to be paid in full," Hibbard said. Church spokesman Peter Mansell said the church does intend to settle matters with the city eventually. "There are several matters that need to be resolved with the code enforcement board before the liens can be finalized and at that point they will be paid," Mansell said. Mansell predicts the Mecca Building, a center for Scientology training, will be ready for occupancy by fall 2010. At that time, the city will expect payment of the fines as well as $439,396.17 in traffic impact fees. Mansell said the traffic fees will be paid in full before a certificate of occupancy is issued. The delay in payment of the fines isn't an issue of affordability for Scientology, Mansell said, noting that the church is downtown's biggest private landowner and pays about a million dollars a year in property taxes. It's not clear how many of the other code violators have the means to pay their pending fines. One of them, Natalie Howard, said she is disabled and unemployed. City records indicate Howard owes more than $261,000 for an unsightly trailer full of motorcycle parts that she says her son once kept in the front yard of her home. The Pinellas property appraiser says Howard's property has a just market value of $67,605, barely a quarter of what she owes the city. To make matters worse, Howard's fine keeps growing at $300 a day even though the trailer is no longer there. "That's a lot of money," Howard said. "I don't even have two dollars." She sees only one way out of her problem. "I guess I'll try to move. That's all I can do." Meantime, the flags at least are flying again as city council members focus on new ways to cut costs and balance the budget. But code enforcement debt isn't part of the strategy. The fines aren't meant as a money-maker, Hibbard said, but as a way to force people to obey the law. Besides, the city can't count on it year after year. "We can use it for one time instances but not ongoing expenses," Hibbard said. The city did crack down on one type of violation, overdue library books, in January 2000, even arresting a pregnant mother of two small children who had kept books and videos too long. That policy ended soon after the woman's release from jail, but not before sparking a surge in overdue book returns by other library patrons. Quintero, the tackle shop owner, said his experience with the mural showed him the need for a simple, black-and-white approach to code enforcement fines. "If they don't owe the money, leave them alone," Quintero said. "If they owe the money, make them pay it."
Reporter Mark Douglas can be reached at (727) 451-2333