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Code enforcement could move into court room

By JODIE TILLMAN
Published February 1, 2007


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NEW PORT RICHEY - Who's more apt to get your attention: a citizens panel that can fine you or a county judge who could put you in jail?

New Port Richey officials suspect the latter. That's why they are hoping to move code enforcement into the court system.

Officials say the prospect of appearing before a judge would encourage property owners to clean up their yards, get rid of those junk cars and fix other code violations. As it is now, violators go before a code enforcement board, which is made up of citizen volunteers.

The threat of court action makes the city's demands "more real," said Mike Nastasuk, code enforcement administrator.

City Council members discussed the possible changes at a work session Tuesday night.

"It's time to try something new," said council member Ginny Miller.

City administrators will research the idea and put together a proposal for the council, which would need to approve it at a future public hearing.

Code enforcement boards have the authority to levy fines against property owners who refuse to comply with demands to clean up. The city, however, does not always see that money.

Officials can file liens on the property, but the city is near the end of the line - after mortgage companies and the county tax collector - to get any money when the property is sold.

In the court system, the city code officers would issue warnings giving property owners a certain period of time to fix the problem. If that deadline passes and the problem is not fixed, the city would have a new power to issue citations - with court dates. Ultimately, if property owners don't comply with a judge's order to fix the problem, they could go to jail for contempt of court.

The city would join other local governments that have made the switch in recent years: Pasco County, Dade City and Zephyrhills.

Pasco Chief Assistant County Attorney Barbara Wilhite told City Council members Tuesday that the county had been pleased with the results since switching to the court system in 2001.

Wilhite said the courts got the attention of property owners, many of whom never bothered to show up at code enforcement board hearings. "It's a very efficient and well-run program," she said.

Just the threat of facing a judge seems to be enough to get most people to comply.

Last fiscal year, the county initiated more than 19,000 cases. But only 133 proceeded through the court system.

In New Port Richey last year, the city handled roughly 6,000 code violations cases; of that, only 163 went before the code enforcement board. Nearly 97 percent of all cases were resolved, the city says.

Not bad. But Nastasuk said that percentage masks the amount of time it takes to get some property owners to finally comply.

Dade City, which switched to the court system last April, has also been happy so far with the results, said Joey Wubbena, director of safety services, which oversees code enforcement.

Violators have tended to respond more quickly to officers' demands to clean their properties, he said. With the possibility of a court date, he said, "it opens their eyes a lot faster."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at 727 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 1, 2007, 00:34:07]


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