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Robocalls to reduce temporary sign blight gets little Largo support

LARGO — They crowd medians and city rights of way, stuck in the ground or stapled to trees and utility poles. In garish colors, they advertise dating websites, cash for junk cars, cash for houses, cash for gold.

They are snipe signs. Largo code enforcement officers collected 3,178 snipe signs last fiscal year, down from about 7,000 annually in years past, but they are still a problem that annoys city commissioners.

This year, one South Florida city debuted a way to get rid of them that has proven successful and has spread to the Tampa Bay area. City Commissioner Curtis Holmes wants Largo to join cities using the latest weapon against snipe signs, but found himself alone during last week's commission work session.

The snipe sign silver bullet was dreamed up by Peter Bober, the mayor of Hollywood. As Hollywood public affairs director Raelin Storey tells it, Bober was stopped at a red light, staring at signs in his Broward County city, when he had an idea: The sign owners want people to call them. So why don't we call them? Why don't we call them so often they never want to put their signs in our city again?

Hollywood's city staff investigated how to make Bober's nuisance-calling idea reality and found a roughly $300 robocalling computer program from Voicent Communications.

Hollywood started using it in March, Storey said, entering phone numbers from the signs into a database and programming the software to call each number 25 times per day. Each call informs sign owners they have broken the law and that calls will continue until they pay a fine and take the signs down.

Nine months later, snipe signs are down about 90 percent in Hollywood, Storey said. And while the program hasn't made much money for the city — the signs are coming down, but people are not showing up in droves to pay fines — Storey says it was well worth the $300.

"It was an innovative and inexpensive way for us to address a perennial problem," she said.

The program now has spread to other cities. Largo Community Development staff gave a presentation about the pros and cons of robocalling to city commissioners Tuesday, at Commissioner Holmes' request.

The staff told commissioners about Hollywood's success and about how St. Petersburg and Clearwater have recently bought the same software. St. Petersburg's robocalling has not yet begun; Clearwater's has malfunctioned (it's not making enough calls) but Mary Jo Weaver, Clearwater's sign inspector, said even with reduced calls she has seen an impact.

However, Largo Community Development Director Carol Stricklin said she has concerns about robocalling being, basically, harassment, and hurting the city's reputation.

"This seems to me to be a less friendly or cooperative way to go about doing this," Stricklin said.

Commissioner Woody Brown replied that Largo shouldn't be concerned about annoying the types of businesses reliant on snipe signs.

Brown was still not in favor of bringing robocalling to Largo, though, and neither were any of the other commissioners. Mayor Pat Gerard left open the possibility that if Stricklin and her staff decided they needed robocalling software, Gerard would support it in the future.

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Robocalls to reduce temporary sign blight gets little Largo support 12/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 15, 2012 3:31am]
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