Monday, May 21, 2018
News Roundup

Pasco seeks to beef up code enforcement to rid county of blight


By Monday, most of the junk that had littered a front lawn on Society Drive had been disposed of at a yard sale the occupants said they held over the weekend.

But a peek around the corner told Pasco code enforcement officers otherwise. Old computer circuit boards and other debris proved enough to justify another citation.

And if that wasn't enough, the hot tub tied atop the van in the driveway prompted a lecture.

"The hot tub has to go," field supervisor Pat Phillips says of the structure, which had insulation hanging out of its broken base.

Billie Jean Sender would have none of it.

"We were going to use it," she says, explaining that her husband blew out his knee and couldn't unload it.

Code enforcement director Joaquin Servia and his team of 14 officers spend their days dealing with cases like this: junked cars, broken appliances, old mattresses, assorted trash and gaudy signs that seem to stay up forever.

Right now, they mostly are able to respond to complaints. They have done a few sweeps, but they lack the staff to do them consistently, Servia says.

"When we do sweeps, other parts of the county go uncovered," he said.

If Pasco wants to be the upscale county that county officials say they want, and attract businesses that bring high-wage jobs, things have to change, he says.

"If you want to be a premier county you can't have all this trash lying around."

• • •

At a recent County Commission workshop, Servia showed photos of unsecured swimming pools, overgrown lots, illegal dumps and brightly colored pennants fluttering by the roadside.

"This county is way too big," he said, emphasizing the challenge of addressing all the problems.

Examples of the most egregious offenses: a pool with no gate or fence; a man operating a tree-cutting business in a residential area; a mobile home park in which water and sewer lines were run above ground.

This week, Servia and Phillips showed the Tampa Bay Times an abandoned big box store, where rust coats part of the metal roof, graffiti covers nearly every wall and wires hang from the ceiling. The office has dubbed it "the Battle of Fallujah" because it resembles the bombed-out buildings in Iraq.

"This is bigger than code enforcement," Servia said. A meeting with other county staffers is planned to discuss options for the partially occupied strip mall, which sits on U.S. 19 about a mile north of the Pasco-Pinellas line. Another eyesore is an abandoned medical clinic, also on U.S. 19. Officers found a homeless father and son living there during a recent check on the building.

Top county administrators last year had allocated money for four additional code enforcement officers, but commissioners cut the funding amid concerns about flat revenues. The additions would have restored staffing to 2008 levels.

The results of that decision haven't gone unnoticed. They are reflected in the county's National Community Survey, where the county was ranked 250 of 251 areas in overall appearance and 297 out of 312 communities for code enforcement.

Servia said the goal is to handle cases within three business days. The department wants to be able to work more with homeowners' associations and initiate sweeps before the blight becomes entrenched.

A pro-active department would also allow for anonymous complaints, which are not accepted now.

"I hate to hear about the little old lady who's afraid to call in a complaint because I don't like bullies," Servia said. At the same time, neighbors can abuse the process.

"It's a balancing act, and we need to figure out what that balancing act should be," Servia said. "We stress compliance, education, partnerships, follow-ups."

• • •

Back on the road, the officers try to keep their encounter with Billie Jean Sender from turning ugly. "Clean it up and give us a call," Phillips says in a conciliatory tone.

Sender calms down but says she doesn't understand why she's being singled out. She vows to move to Texas.

"They are so off the chain," she says. "This is not a deed-restricted community."

A few blocks down, the officers stop at another home with a black Camaro rusting in the front yard next to a boat. The garage is crammed with tools and other items.

It's the officers' first visit, so the man gets a warning. If the yard is clean in two weeks, he won't get cited. He tells them about his foot surgery and diabetes and promises to comply. He tells them to just look around; his neighbors have worse problems.

The officers don't doubt it, but they can only respond to complaints.

Servia said he knows a lot of violations stem from poverty and bad luck. But his officers have to enforce the law.

"We feel for the people, but we also feel for the neighbors," he said.

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