Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala has given staff members 30 days to come up with a better way to get owners to repair and clean up their property.
LaSala's decision came after a report in the Tampa Bay Times disclosed that many code liens in the unincorporated area far exceed the value of the property. In some cases the liens exceeded $1 million. A Times editorial concluded the county's code system is not working.
LaSala said in an email to county staff members that "I can't disagree with the editorial."
He added: "We all recognize that our first priority is to achieve compliance. The current penalty system doesn't work to accomplish that goal effectively.
"Please begin work on a more common sense, outcome based approach that we can bring to the (county commission) for consideration."
He recommended that the special hearing officers who rule on code cases and authorize liens be consulted "in developing an improved approach."
County Commissioner Karen Seel responded that a new plan is "long overdue."
Seel said she has long advocated for changes to the system. The county, she said, might want to look at Clearwater's system. Rather than going through the courts, Clearwater has a community advocacy committee, which is less punitive and tries to seek solutions. Seel said she'd also like to see a social services or similar component to help those who cannot afford to fix their property.
Pinellas has more than 300 liens filed on mostly residential property in the unincorporated areas for ongoing code violations. The total amount owed to the county for outstanding liens is about $47 million. In at least four cases, the liens exceed $2 million each. One couple with two properties in the High Point area owes the county about $5.8 million in code liens, according to county records. Many other liens are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The houses are worth a fraction of that. One house in the Lealman area, for example, has a lien of about $2.3 million but is worth about $41,000.
County code officials acknowledge it's hard to collect the money. The county collected about $435,000 of the $47 million during the 2010-11 fiscal year. And it's unlikely the county will ever see much of the rest.
About a third of the liens can't be collected because the house is worth so much less than the claim, code officers say. Another third aren't collectable because the houses have a homestead exemption, which protects the homeowner against government foreclosure. A third may be collectable, but many have outstanding mortgages that take precedence over the county code lien should Pinellas foreclose.
And even though the system is more about compliance than money, that doesn't happen either. Sometimes owners can't afford repairs. Other times, they are simply stubborn.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.