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Next time, city should just knock

Turns out the woman Tarpon Springs has been trying to reach by mail for years is just blocks from City Hall.

Published October 10, 2006

TARPON SPRINGS - Why can't the city find Demetra Tsrogiannis?

That has been the recurring question on each of the three occasions the City Commission has considered whether to foreclose on Tsrogiannis' property at 139 E Spruce St.

The gray clapboard eyesore stands empty now, nearly eclipsed by the tangle of brush covering the front lawn and veil of vines creeping down from the roof. Between the holes pock-marking the screened-in porch and gaps eating away the walls, the house itself seems to be moldering into the earth.

Only the mailbox seems to be out of place; propped firmly atop a vine-free wooden post, the plastic tube is unmarred, stark white.

Police and city attorneys contend the owner has been given fair warning over the past four years: public notices, certified mail about the two liens and at least 10 letters about code violations cases, and fines that total more than $140,000.

Back in April 2005, it took not even a full minute of discussion for the Code Enforcement Board to unanimously recommend that the City Commission approve foreclosing on the property.

Through it all, though, the owner never responded.

The silence prompted hesitation when the matter first landed before the commission in July, particularly from Peter Nehr. Nehr was troubled that the litany of fines and notices had not brought a response from the owner. Was the owner even alive? he asked.

"Do we have an obligation, a moral obligation to do a better search for the owners of this property or their heirs?" he asked.

Police Chief Mark LeCouris said he anticipated the commission's reluctance and delayed raising the matter until he was assured that "every avenue had been exhausted" by code enforcement and Thomas Trask, the assistant city attorney who handles fines, liens and foreclosures on behalf of the city.

Nehr remained unconvinced.

"I don't understand how we can't find someone," he said. "If I didn't pay a bill for $5,000, they would find me no matter where I went in the United States."

Trask's law partner who was attending the meeting said that all the official records had been searched. "Short of hiring a private investigator, I don't know what else we can do," Shauna Morris said.

But Nehr, backed by the other commissioners, decided to delay the vote until they got more details.

"What kind of effort have we done to find these people except send them a letter?" he asked.

The following week, the item was back on the agenda, accompanied by copies of 10 letters that had been addressed to Tsrogiannis.

But again, the commission stalled, unsatisfied with the update; perhaps none of the letters had been returned, but had they reached Tsrogiannis? Were they sent certified mail?

Clearly, the news grew increasingly grim, with each letter detailing the progression of two distinct code enforcement cases.

The first case concerned the overgrown weeds and bushes and debris scattered along the fence line. Issued by the Code Enforcement Board in April 2002, the notice warned that if violations were not addressed by the middle of May, the board would impose a $50-a-day fine.

The second order, dated August 2003, cited structural and electrical hazards, violations that carried a $75 daily fine.

The penalties multiplied and led to liens filed in circuit court, eventually totaling $140,000 and prompting a move to foreclose.

The City Commission revisited the Spruce Street matter a third time, on Sept. 19. This time, another memo provided by Trask said some of the notices were sent certified mail.

He added that in this case, more recent letters had been addressed to 532 Center St. - a "nonverified" address a records search turned up for Tsrogiannis. The Center Street address is where the county had been sending tax bills beginning in 2005.

But Nehr pointed out that the original questions remained unanswered. They still didn't know whether the owner was alive or capable of making basic legal distinctions. Were there any relatives, had they been notified, was this standard practice for a foreclosure? he asked.

"We just send some letters and if we don't get a response, we just keep going?"

The alternative posed a legal quagmire, said Jim Yacavone, another city attorney in Trask's firm.

"There are other things that can be done," Yacavone said. "But there's no sure way to make certain that we can find someone and get their attention."

Despite the warning, the commission was undeterred. Again, the vote was postponed and Nehr pointedly rephrased the board's standing request:

"Can we not just go to this person's house and knock on the door?"

In fact, it took a single knock from a reporter to bring Peter Keramidas to the door of 532 E Center St. on Thursday.

It is true, he said: His sister-in-law, Tsrogiannis, and her two children live in his boxy two-story house about five blocks from City Hall.

Keramidas said Tsrogiannis was too ill to speak to a reporter.

Several years ago, he stepped in to help when she fell ill and was unable to work. But Keramidas, 75, said it has been a struggle, especially since he sold his gift shops at the Sponge Docks two years ago.

"I help her and her family," he said. "It's not easy to care for somebody."

Just last month, Keramidas said, he paid $2,275 in back taxes as the county was set to auction off the house where his wife and Tsrogiannis were born.

This, however, was the first he had heard of the foreclosure and $140,000 in city code enforcement liens, he said.

"Every month, she pay for the water to the city $35," he insisted. "They never say nothing!"

Keramidas promised to fight in court any effort to take the house away.

"They are going to condemn the house, I am going to condemn them!"

The city is charging Tsrogiannis $140,000 and didn't even cut the grass, he added.

He said no one from the city had called or come to the house. Keramidas said that if Tsrogiannis had received any letters, she never gave them to him.

In fact, a possible explanation for the confusion is laid out in the city's own code enforcement file. In a 2003 police report, the officer dispatched to the house detailed in great length extensive concerns not just about the conditions of the property, but also about Tsrogiannis' mental health.

[Last modified October 9, 2006, 21:10:22]

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