TAMPA — Tampa’s most problematic property owners could find themselves getting a court summons instead of a friendly warning on future code violations under a proposal floated to the Tampa City Council on Thursday.
Assistant City Attorney Ernest Mueller suggested the council might want to create a special category for code scofflaws – “chronic violators” -- that would help the city sink its regulatory teeth more deeply into those property owners when they get ticketed for code problems.
“The idea is to get them into court and get them in fast,” Mueller said.
Council members will sort out exactly who will be considered a chronic violator at a workshop on Oct. 24. The city has to find a way to separate people who ignore the city’s housing codes from those who can’t afford to fix violations, Mueller said.
Along with targeting chronic violators for more rigorous treatment, council members also plan to consider over the new few months:
* Creating a registry of the city’s 14,000 rental properties that help city officials know who to contact when violations occur and who to haul into court if problems aren’t remedied.
* Increasing rental inspections to every year from every three years, with contractors doing much of the work on the city’s behalf.
* Asking state legislators to let local governments attach code enforcement liens to a property’s tax bill as a way to speed up payment.
“We need to have a more effective hammer to get people through the door to pay their fines,” said Councilman Mike Suarez.
The city’s current system places liens on property to recoup any costs the city incurs fixing violations the owners don’t fix themselves. But getting that money back can take many years because liens aren’t usually paid until a property sells.
Council members hope to get a handle on property owners who game the code system, fixing problems before they get to court or a code enforcement hearing, thereby avoiding the stiffer penalties for repeat offenders.
Under state law, only a court or code board can declare someone a repeat code violator. Those who fix their problems quickly never get to a hearing and never get declared a repeat offender.
As a result, they can be ticketed over and over for code violations yet never trigger tougher sanctions.
That was the case of former Tampa Port Authority Chairman William “Hoe” Brown, who was cited by the city 58 times over 10 years for violations at properties he owns in Seminole Heights and elsewhere. On each occasion, Brown took days or weeks to fix the problems, avoiding a trip to court or the code enforcement board.
Brown followed that approach until July, when city officials ordered him to shut down an illegal, squalid trailer part on Stanley Street.
The conditions there shocked people across the city. Brown resigned his position on the port authority.
The next week Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced a 30-day code enforcement sweep of several city neighborhoods. The sweep, which has continued well beyond its original time frame, has produced hundreds of tickets for code violations.
About three-quarters of the properties involved are rentals, many with absentee landlords.
As city council members explore their options for tightening up on code violators, City Attorney Julia Mandel reminded them there are limits on what they can do. State law spells out some of the procedures for dealing with code violations. Federal protections of property rights also restrict the city’s actions.
“We have limitations,” Mandel said. “This isn’t something where we can just do whatever we want.”