NEW PORT RICHEY — City leaders took a step toward getting tougher on landlords who allow drug dealing, prostitution and gang activity to repeatedly take place on their properties.
Council members on Tuesday unanimously approved a first reading of a new nuisance abatement ordinance that will allow the city to go after property owners with fines, liens and even business closures when criminal activity mounts at a particular site. A second vote will take place in two weeks.
The program will fall under the auspices of a new special magistrate system the city is also in the process of installing. The council also passed a first reading Tuesday of an ordinance establishing the magistrate system.
In addition to nuisance abatement violations, New Port Richey is also looking at using the magistrate down the road for animal control, code enforcement and red light camera hearings.
The nuisance abatement ordinance will allow the city manager to bring a complaint against an owner of a property where two or more criminal violations have occurred within a six-month period. A hearing would then be held to allow the property owner to present a defense.
If the magistrate finds with the city, fines not exceeding $250 a day can be levied, liens can be placed on the property and closures of any business entities can be ordered. If an owner is not aware of criminal activity on his or her property, or it's being caused by renters, the ordinance allows owners 60 days to evict problem tenants without penalty.
For Council member Jeff Starkey, who made enacting a nuisance abatement program a cornerstone of his campaign this year, the new ordinance can't take effect soon enough.
Starkey specifically railed against motels along U.S. 19 where drug dealing and prostitution are rampant and said the ordinance should serve as notice that the city won't put up with it anymore.
"It's a huge, huge step," Starkey said.
In other law enforcement news, the City Council also approved the first reading of an ordinance that would allow New Port Richey to get into the vehicle impoundment business. Currently, if the city tows a vehicle, the tow truck company takes it away to a private impound lot and imposes fees.
Should the ordinance pass in two weeks, the New Port Richey Police Department would be allowed to operate its own impound lot and collect fees for the storage and recovery of towed vehicles.