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Civil court as code enforcer a smart plan

By Times editorial
Published February 2, 2007


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New Port Richey wants to switch a citizens panel with civil court. It's a logical swap to enhance code enforcement in Pasco's largest city. The plan, being drafted by the city staff and requiring council approval, will rely on Pasco County Court judges to enforce city codes.

The intent is to speed up compliance. Typical violations include failing to mow the grass, littering and improperly storing junk vehicles. Though, a code enforcement board has the authority to levy fines or even place a lien on property, the city's standing is subordinate to a property's mortgage holder and the county tax collector.

Giving enforcement authority to a judge with arrest powers, rather than a volunteer citizens panel, should encourage property owners to comply.

It's an enforcement method already used by Pasco County and the cities of Dade City and Zephyrhills. Port Richey previously disbanded its citizens code enforcement panel as well, but opted to use an administrative hearing officer instead of a civil court judge.

Either method is preferable to the appointed code enforcement boards that had allowed problems to linger because members were unwilling or unable to collect fines or impose stricter penalties on scofflaws who skipped hearings with no retribution.

In the county, arrests have been rare since code enforcement moved to the court system more than six years ago. Most people comply, pay a fine and fix the violation rather than face time in jail. Last year, for instance, the county handled 19,000 code enforcement cases, and only 133 reached the court system.

A notable exception in past years was Silvio Rosalen, a west Pasco man, who gained notoriety as the first person jailed for not complying with county codes. He served 10 days in 2003, citing health reasons for not cleaning debris from his property.

Later, in separate cases, two men went to jail because arrest warrants remained active even though the county attorney's office filed court papers indicating they had begun following county codes.

That is a lesson to be learned for New Port Richey. It should ensure its procedures require the city to copy letters of compliance to its police department if a defendant cleaned up his or her property after a judge had issued an arrest warrant.

Despite that glitch, the hard-line stance is welcome. In Pasco, for instance, the county added code enforcement officers and went on neighborhood blitzes to observe and report problems instead of relying on the traditional method of waiting for a neighbor to complain. The effort is based on more than aesthetics. Property falling into disrepair can become a public health concern.

New Port Richey is in the midst of an aggressive citywide redevelopment. Though the downtown core gains the most attention and notoriety, the redevelopment also includes a neighborhood investment in which city grants of up to $5,000 are available for major renovations to modestly priced homes, In its first year, $113,000 worth of city grants triggered more than $900,000 worth of additional investment from owners fixing up their houses.

That type of commitment to the city housing stock must be reinforced with a substantial commitment to enforcing the city codes to protect those investments.

City data shows the city failed to resolve only 3 percent of last year's 6,000 code enforcement cases and only 163 went to the code enforcement board. It's a respectable performance, but compare it to the county, which had fewer people going to court even though it handled three times as many cases as the city.

New Port Richey is correct to consider this switch to the civil courts. More efficient code enforcement is a key component of the city's long-term redevelopment.

[Last modified February 1, 2007, 23:56:27]


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