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County's money to clean up Pasco's forgotten homes keeps contractor afloat

Joe Elkins, right, rakes trimmings as Justin Kowal mows outside a house on Leaning Oak Drive in Port Richey last week.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Joe Elkins, right, rakes trimmings as Justin Kowal mows outside a house on Leaning Oak Drive in Port Richey last week.

The waist-high weeds outside the abandoned home looked like every other one Ken Supernault showed up to mow.

But this one got to him.

"I had mowed this lawn when I was 12 years old," the 1982 Gulf High School graduate said. Back then, the house belonged to an elderly couple who kept everything tidy.

The retired couple had been gone for years, and now their former home was vacant, another casualty of the housing market collapse that has hit hard in Pasco, a county that depended mainly on home construction for its economic sustenance.

"It made me sad," said Supernault, 44. "So many homes are run-down and trashed."

But the overgrown yards caused by foreclosures have provided a lifeline to Supernault, whose New Port Richey company, United Tile, was laid low by the slowdown in new construction. Supernault, who owned mowing equipment he used on property he owned in northern Florida, decided to put it to work and won one of two bids to clean up properties cited by the county's Code Compliance Department. The other company, R&M Lawn Service, is based in Lacoochee. County officials cite homes with grass that reaches at least a foot high and gives owners two weeks to clean the yards on their own. If they don't respond, the county sends a contractor out to mow weeds and/or clean up trash and then puts a lien on the property to try to recoup the cost. Employees have dubbed the process "clean and lien."

The foreclosures have kept the contractors busy in a county that has double-digit unemployment.

Last month, the number of overgrown lawns assigned to contractors hit a two-year high of 61.

Officials say the drought helped stifle the weeds earlier this year, so the county hasn't exceeded its budgeted amount of $87,500. However, the summer rains have caused the grass to shoot up.

"We expect to run out of money when the new budget goes in," said county zoning administrator Debra Zampetti, who also oversees the Code Compliance Department.

Code officers got about 15 citations for overgrown lawns Monday, said Officer Dave Peters.

"It's really busting loose," he said.

The increase in unkempt properties comes at a time when the county faces a $36 million budget hole caused by plummeting home values and voter-approved mandates.

"It's only going to escalate as we have two more months of hot weather," said County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.

She said a woman called and said she had filed a complaint three weeks ago and nothing had been done.

"She said her husband had taken care of it once and he shouldn't have to do it again; this is what they paid their taxes for," Hildebrand said.

The fact that liens are tough to collect really puts the county in a bind.

"It's not until the property's sold that we can try to collect it," said Lee Millard, assistant zoning administrator.

That amounts to taxpayers paying for the maintenance of private property, Hildebrand said.

"We're going to have to deal with what is need and what is want," she said. "There's no perfect solution."

As for Supernault, a husband and father of five, he and his 10 employees are working to keep up as the demand for tile in new homes wanes.

"It's kept us afloat," he said.

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Source: Pasco County Code Compliance Department



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County's money to clean up Pasco's forgotten homes keeps contractor afloat 08/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 10, 2009 8:45pm]
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