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County zeros in on code issues

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published March 7, 2007


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INVERNESS - After discussing nearly two dozen proposals as part of their annual goal-setting meeting, commissioners agreed on at least one priority Tuesday: strengthening county code enforcement.

They will discuss how to add more teeth to code enforcement policies at a future meeting. Several commissioners suggested that the county should set strong examples by forcing property owners to clean up - and pay up.

"Citizens, they just don't take us seriously," Commissioner Joyce Valentino said. "We have cases that are six years old and still not in compliance."

Commissioner Gary Bartell said the county needs to strengthen its approach by allowing citizens to file complaints anonymously and by increasing inspections. Current county policy requires staff to investigate only after a complaint has been filed.

"They county inspectors go down the street with blinders on," he said. "If they see a serious code enforcement violation, they don't handle it because they didn't get a complaint. We need to change that."

Commissioner Dennis Damato said he was on the county's first code enforcement board in the 1980s.

Then, he said, the goal was compliance. But with the county's population on the rise, Damato and other commissioners said it is time to kick things up a notch.

"It is atrocious sometimes when you see some of this stuff," he said. "How do you get someone's attention? Not by forgiving liens."

Damato said the county should do "whatever it takes" to fix the problem - even if that means having inspectors on duty 24 hours a day.

Director of public safety Charles Poliseno, who oversees the county's code enforcement division, attended Tuesday's meeting but did not address commissioners.

Tuesday's discussion came nearly two years after commissioners approved a new nuisance ordinance that gave the county the power to clean up blighted property and charge property owners for the work.

Commissioner Vicki Phillips said that before commissioners try to strengthen code enforcement, they need to make sure the county has enough money.

"We don't even have the funds in place to take care of what we get complaints about," she said.

During the meeting's public comment period, Inverness City Council member Sophia Diaz-Fonseca suggested that the county could use volunteers to spot code enforcement problems. She said the program could be called "Code Watch," following the model of neighborhood crime watch programs.

Other goals proposed Tuesday included the following:

- Commissioner John Thrumston, a former president of Citrus County Habitat for Humanity, proposed improving affordable housing opportunities with a local affordable housing fund and increasing efforts to acquire grant funding. He also suggested analyzing county-owned land to find property for affordable housing projects.

- Damato proposed creating an annual assessment that all Citrus property owners would pay to help fund water and wastewater infrastructure improvements. The assessment would cost $2.08 per month per parcel, he said, generating $3.36-million annually.

- Phillips said the county should hold a workshop to discuss the county's office space needs with other elected officials.

"We need to make sure that what we build is needed," she said.

Damato also mentioned space needs. He suggested that the county conduct two new studies. County staffers should continue investigating the possibility of building a government center in the Meadowcrest area, he said.

And the county should team up with officials from Inverness, Citrus schools, Citrus Memorial Health System and the private sector to hire a consultant, he said. The group could conduct a master plan study of space in Inverness, he said.

- Bartell said the county should consider allowing employees to work from home and changing employee schedules to save money. And he said county officials should use population growth as a guide when preparing budgets.

- Valentino proposed hiring a grant writer to apply for additional funding for county projects.

- All five commissioners said the county should look toward using more concretables - or buildings made of prefabricated concrete sections - in construction projects. Damato said all five commissioners will meet with School Board member Bill Murray to find out more. "The sad part is we have to do it one at a time because of the Sunshine Law," he said.

Commissioners will rank the list of goals and discuss them at an April meeting, County Administrator June Fisher said.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309.

[Last modified March 6, 2007, 19:51:00]


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