Sunday, May 27, 2018
News Roundup

Scofflaws' code violation fines top their Pinellas County homes' value

The saga began in March 2006 with a yard strewn with trash and debris.

A code officer inspecting the home on 68th Street in unincorporated Pinellas County found more violations, including an inoperable car in the yard. He told the owner, Joann P. Mills, to clean things up. It's unclear if that happened.

In April 2009, code officers found deteriorating walls and boarded-up windows at the home in the Pinellas Park area. This time, Mills was fined $1,200 a day, plus interest. The fines continue to grow.

The 70-year-old, who still lives in the house, now owes the county about $1.2 million — on a home appraised at just more than $35,000.

Her situation is not unusual. Pinellas County has more than 300 outstanding liens, or claims, filed against properties for ongoing code violations. Four have a balance of more than $2 million. One couple who owns two properties in the High Point area owe the county about $5.8 million in fines, code officials say.

Many others have balances in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And many of those houses are worth only a fraction of the balance.

Records show that during the 2010-11 fiscal year, the county collected about $435,000 out of the $46.8 million in outstanding liens.

County officials, who see the lien process as a tool to get problems fixed, acknowledge they're unlikely to ever see that money. "It's all about compliance, not punishment," Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala said.

Code officers estimate a third of the liens can't be collected because the house is worth so much less than the claim. 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.

Even when the owner seemingly has an ability to pay, it's hard to collect.

Take the house at 6810 33rd St. N in Lealman for instance. It's owned by Goldman Sachs Mortgage Co. The lien was placed on the property on Feb. 24, 2010. Goldman Sachs foreclosed and took over ownership Dec. 19, 2011, according to property appraiser's records.

The county appraises it at about $47,000, but it has a lien of more than $561,000. A spokeswoman for Goldman Sachs said she was unfamiliar with the case and could not comment.

Although it might seem easy to collect from a banking giant like Goldman Sachs, that's not so, said Todd Myers, Pinellas County code enforcement director. State law says the mortgage comes first. The county can refile the lien, but if Goldman Sachs is like many other banks, getting either compliance or money could be hard.

Banks, Myers said, are willing to mow the grass, but less willing to fix structural problems, such as holes in the roof. They basically want to sell it as soon as possible.

"They don't want to spend any money on it," he said.

That's not the whole story, said Anthony Torres, who owns a small mortgage company in Tampa. His Anthony Torres Revocable Trust owns 1216 Norwood Ave. in unincorporated Clearwater, which has a lien worth almost $2.1 million. Torres said he is a victim of the economy. When 20 owners defaulted on their mortgages, he ended up owning their houses, and the sheer volume hitting him all at once was overwhelming.

"You just can't do it. It's not that you're a bad guy," Torres said. "The only thing to do is throw up your hands and say, 'Take it.' "

He added that a system that keeps piling fines onto property that isn't worth much is "just silly. It doesn't make sense."

The fines continue to climb daily until the problems are fixed. If the problems are fixed, the fines stop, but if the balance is not paid, the 6 percent annual interest keeps adding to the total.

The plain fact is that those high amounts are real, yet they're also not real, said Myers.

"It's a fake number,'' he said. "We're not going to see that much money."

How high can the fines go? Until they're paid, the sky is the limit.

Lawrence and Kathy Ayers, who own 15750 and 15676 A Westminster Ave. in the High Point area, owe nearly $6 million in fines, said code officer Tom Funk. The Ayerses could not be reached for comment.

Sometimes, Myers said, someone wants to buy the house and discovers the lien, which can scuttle the sale. But that doesn't necessarily happen when the sale is a cash deal. Buyers who don't check may find out later that they've not only purchased a house, but also a sizable debt because the lien stays on the property for up to 20 years. If not paid in 20 years, the county can renew it for another 20.

"They've bought the lien," Myers said. "Whether they know about it or not is another question."

Even if a buyer or lender calls the county, it's unlikely Pinellas would be paid the whole amount of the lien. That's especially true if the problems get fixed. The county is willing to reduce the total.

"We do work with people," Myers said. But, "until you come into compliance, we don't even talk."

By putting a kink in potential sales or mortgages, it's more likely that hard-core code scofflaws will eventually fix their properties.

But in many cases, the county gets neither compliance nor the money. Despite that, LaSala said it's not a waste of code officers' time and county resources to place a lien on property.

"In some cases, they see the light," LaSala said.

Others don't.

Mills, the disabled owner of the 68th Street house, is angry that code officers have cited her. Her home is at the dead end of a short, dirt road.

"I don't think it's fair for the county to say anything about the property when they've never touched our road. We had to pay for our road to be graded ourselves. The county don't do nothing for us," Mills said.

"It looks like Pinellas County could do something to help the disabled and the older people."

Even if Mills could pay part of the fine, she's not likely to do so: "All I can say is, they can have the place when I die."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.

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