BROOKSVILLE — Four people, 400 square miles.
It's a tiny team to battle piled garbage, high grass, trashed cars and other unsightly code violations across a sprawling county. But that ratio could soon be the reality as Hernando County code enforcement officials try to do their part to help bridge the county's $10.3 million budget shortfall.
As funding dwindled over the past three years, code enforcement has been forced to shift to a reactive strategy. Fewer officers means a limited ability to patrol for violations.
The changes proposed for next budget year, however, would represent a stark departure even from that kind of operation.
County staff has recommended that the County Commission amend or repeal several code ordinances that the office simply won't have enough people to enforce, especially restrictions that aim to preserve the county's aesthetic appeal. Gone could be restrictions on everything from storing junk cars and commercial equipment to operating businesses from homes.
"It is definitely a Catch-22," said Jean Rags, director of the community services division, which includes code enforcement. "If we don't enforce these ordinances or they're modified, it does impact a community. It's a difficult decision. But you have to have the manpower."
In 2007, the department had a budget of a little more than $1 million with 14 full-time employees, including eight code enforcement officers. By last year, that had dropped to about $681,000.
Next year's proposed budget of $585,425 includes 7.65 employees, two fewer than this year. One of the positions planned for the chopping block is a customer service staffer, the other an enforcement officer. That would bring the total number of officers to four.
Officers historically have patrolled to catch so-called field violations. By necessity, the four officers would probably be able to pursue only violations stemming from residents' complaints, with exceptions for observed violations that present a health or safety hazard, Rags told commissioners during a budget workshop last month.
"We're not able to be as proactive to head things off," she said last week.
It's an unfortunate irony that as the economy falters, the number of potential code violations increases, Rags said. The latest brutal recession has been true to that pattern.
Many foreclosed homes are falling into disrepair, choked by overgrown lawns and piles of trash. Struggling residents may be unable to repair their cars. Others may be trying to get a home business off the ground, despite zoning laws.
But as the number of officers has dropped, so has the ability to respond. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, the department had 16,271 service calls, including 11,557 field violations.
By the next year, those numbers had dropped to 11,368 and 6,416 respectively.
The first six months of this year continue a new trend, said Liana Teague, manager of code enforcement and animal services.
"The number of call-ins by citizens are increasing while field violations are decreasing because we don't have as many people," Teague said.
Cases can take months to resolve. The department currently has about 1,100 open cases.
"What some people don't understand is that it's not just taking 15 minutes to write a ticket," Rags said.
Among the cases that will continue to take priority are those associated with illegal dumping, burn ban violations, construction site debris and dead or dying trees, she said.
According to the recommendations from Rags and Teague, the county would eliminate or amend:
The public nuisance abatement program for foreclosed properties.
The department uses general revenue to mow tall grass and clear trash and debris from foreclosed property, spending about $6,300 so far this year. There were still 90 properties on the list as of last week, Teague said.
The county is trying to work with a property management company to urge banks to take care of those issues. In cases where the conditions on vacant property present a safety concern, the county would likely still respond based on direction from commissioners, Rags said.
The ordinance on parking and storing recreational vehicles and inoperable vehicles.
The department last fiscal year had 144 cases involving RVs and 621 cases of inoperable vehicles.
If this and some other ordinances remain in force, "with four officers on the road, I can conceivably see these officers would spend a majority of their time filling out paperwork," Rags said.
Restrictions on noise levels.
Officers use decibel meters to determine whether a property owner is exceeding noise limits, which are set according to a parcel's zoning. The department had 24 cases last fiscal year.
Restrictions on the storage of certain types of commercial vehicles allowed in residential and other zoning designations.
In this case, Rags and Teague recommend easing the restrictions, allowing, say, box trucks or panel vans in some places where they are prohibited now. There were 137 cases related to these restrictions last year.
Restrictions on the storage of commercial equipment on residential property.
Rags offered the example of a landscaping company owner who stores trailers full of equipment in a residential yard.
Calls last year: 72.
Restrictions on farm animals on residential property.
The recommendation calls for adjusting these restrictions to allow for a limited number of small farm animals on residential property. There were six cases last year, and the commission has in the past made exceptions for violators who appeal, Teague said.
Restrictions on where vehicles can be sold.
This ordinance states, for example, that a friend cannot display a vehicle for sale on another friend's property. Cases last year: 27.
Restrictions on yard sales.
Property owners are now limited to four sales a year, a maximum of three days each in duration. Cases last year: two.
County staffers recommend that the yard sale ordinance be repealed.
Enforcement of the construction permit ordinance would be shifted to the Development Department.
According to Teague, the ordinances recommended for elimination, amending or assignment to other departments account for about 13 percent of code enforcement's work load. The loss of an officer represents a 20 percent reduction in force.
"So the amount we're recommending is not even proportionate to the amount we're losing," she said.
The commissioners will have the final say in the budget and the elimination or amendment of ordinances. Public hearings on the 2010-11 budget, which goes into effect Oct. 1, will be in September.
At last month's budget hearing, Commissioner Rose Rocco expressed concern that the cuts would hinder code enforcement's ability to meet its mission.
"I know you're restricted as far as the amount of people you have," Rocco told Rags, "but I think if we're going to have code enforcement in place, we need to have something that's viable in a way that they're going to be able to do the job they're hired to do."
Last fall, Commissioner Jeff Stabins told the Times that the e-mails arriving in his in-box had gone from complaints about overzealous code enforcement to laments over a lack of presence and response. At the time, Stabins said he sensed that the county had "reached a balance" when it came to code enforcement staffing.
Last week, he said the department should not lose any more workers. The same goes, he said, for animal services, which also would lose an officer and cut back on hours of operation, among other cuts.
"They're right where they need to be," Stabins said. "We don't need to add to the unemployment crisis in the county and further deny our citizens the services they expect."
But Commissioner David Russell said the measures achieve two necessary things: eliminating ordinances, of which the county has too many, and saving money.
"We're having to cut back due to the lack of revenues to support a certain level of services we've been accustomed to," Russell said. "As unfortunate as that is, I'm afraid it's necessary."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.