PORT RICHEY — The city is gearing up to search for a full-time code enforcement officer to combat blight in Port Richey.
Currently, code enforcement is conducted part-time by a police officer. On Tuesday, the City Council directed City Manager Tom O'Neill to start the process of getting him some help. During the budget season, the council allotted $48,000 for the position.
"I think we all believe there's a full-time job to be done out there," said Vice Mayor Bill Colombo.
O'Neill praised the code enforcement work done by Port Richey police Officer John Schwarz, but said he has other law enforcement duties that limit the time he can spend on code enforcement.
"Code enforcement, code compliance, is very, very important and it works to sustain neighborhood property values," O'Neill said.
The city is working to define the code enforcement problem in the city, O'Neill said, but in a memo to the council he said 10 to 20 percent of Port Richey's properties are in violation.
The city handles about 325 code enforcement cases a year but has yet to utilize a new system it implemented this year to issue citations through the County Court system. City Attorney Joseph Poblick told the council that the County Court in Pasco is ready to accept code enforcement citations.
Schwarz told the council he has not yet issued a citation because it has been more cost effective for Port Richey to seek compliance first.
He also said one of the biggest obstacles he faces is trying to get bank-owned properties — many of which are out-of-state — to comply. In some cases the city is now mowing lawns and placing liens on properties, O'Neill added.
"The process is streamlining more and more as I make contacts and do these investigations," Schwarz said. "I have people at banks that I'm on a first name basis with. And that's monumental in this business."
Council members praised Schwarz for seeking compliance before being heavy-handed with property owners and expressed the desire to see that approach continue with a full-time officer.
"The effort to get compliance is the chief ingredient here. We are a small town and we don't want our citizens to perceive us as this heavy-handed enforcement arm of the city," Mayor Eloise Taylor said.
Council member Steve O'Neill agreed that a new officer should not "hammer" property owners, but added tackling the problem will not be easy. He said code enforcement issues are more obvious in a small city.
"This person is going to have a hard job. It's not going to be an easy job," he said.
Council member Terry Rowe said he is glad to see a more even-handed approach to code enforcement in the city than in the past. He said code enforcement in Port Richey was "kind of a joke" among residents years ago.
"It seemed to apply to certain people and not others," Rowe said.