NEW PORT RICHEY
Liz Nichols, the lone code enforcement officer in New Port Richey, is a case-making machine — a force to be reckoned with in a cash-strapped city where 41 percent of the homes are rentals and another 20 percent vacant. From the deteriorating mobile home park of Walden Pond off U.S. 19 to streets where trash and debris pile up, Nichols engages in a constant tug-of-war with residents and property owners. Her cellphone list includes 200 landlords. Two years ago the city eliminated two code enforcement officer positions, leaving Nichols to work alone. She has generated more than 4,300 cases since.
"Isn't that mind-blowing that one person could do that?" said her boss, New Port Richey police Chief James Steffens. "She gets after it with dedication and passion. She is a true, true asset."
City building inspector Michael Howsare calls her "Superwoman."
Nichols starts her day at 5 a.m. slogging through paperwork for two hours, then hits the streets in her pickup truck to begin property inspections. She's friendly, waving and honking at people who smile and wave back.
"I love my job,'' she said. "I'm very busy, but the day flies by."
When pressed, she admitted some help would be nice. And help is one the way. The city has secured an $80,373 Community Development Block Grant through Pasco County to hire another code enforcement officer. The grant will cover two years of salary and a vehicle.
Steffens said getting another code enforcement officer on the job is critical as the city's appearance is deteriorating. Half of the homes in New Port Richey were built between 1970 and 1989, and 52 percent of the city's population has a household income less than $35,000, according to the city's grant application.
Property values plunged 11 percent this year.
"We have serious aesthetic issues in the city," Steffens said. "In a recent citizen survey done by the city, one of the biggest concerns for residents was appearance."
He has several applicants for the new position and interviews will begin next week.
"What we need now is to clone her," he said of Nichols. "The person we hire is definitely going to hit the ground running. There will be no lag time."
Nichols, 58, was born and raised in Brooklyn, where she lived until 1990. She worked as a probation officer and in code enforcement in Atlanta suburbs before accepting the job with New Port Richey eight years ago.
As she made her code enforcement rounds Friday, Nichols pulled her truck in front of a rental on Candice Lane. Old mattresses were piled outside with a cracked wooden bureau and trash. Nichols nodded toward a similar mess next door that included a broken television.
"They told me this would be cleaned up by now," she said pulling out her phone.
Nichols tapped through her contact list and dialed. A property manager answered.
"What's up with the properties on Candice?" she asked. "I thought you were going to get this trash. I don't want it sitting here all weekend. It's a little disrespectful."
Nichols got another promise but said she'd be back a few more times.
The next option: a citation.
She hits Candice Lane several times a day.
"You wouldn't believe it,'' she said, "but it actually looks good today. If you let things go out here, it can really get bad."
A few doors down, Nichols stopped to chat with Harold Connolly who forgot to put his trash out for pick-up the day before. Several piles of debris and overflowing trash cans sat in front of his chain-link fence.
"How come you have all this trash out here? Didn't they pick up yesterday?" Nichols asked.
Surprisingly, Connolly, like many of the people Nichols encountered during the day, smiled at her arrival, even though he was now on the hot seat.
"I've known Liz for a long time," Connolly told the Times. "She's the greatest person. She'll work with you even if you have troubles."
Nichols pulled away after chatting with Connolly for a few minutes. He promised to take the trash to the county's incinerator. She said she'd come back to check.
"It's about compliance,'' she said. "Most of the time they do what needs to be done with a verbal warning. I'll write them a citation without a second thought, and they know that. But I try to work with people."