Violations continue, but Hernando has fewer code enforcement officers to handle them

Despite the colorful "welcome" banner flying out front, there was nothing inviting about the house just east of Deltona Boulevard in Spring Hill.

In a mound to one side of the driveway were piles of garbage bags — weeks worth of household trash.

Code enforcement officer Robert Stone stood in the strip of lawn that is public right of way and gestured to the mess.

"It's going to start stinking,'' Stone said. And then there would be critters rooting through it, making it even more offensive to neighbors.

Stone, who has been with county code enforcement for five years, said the job has shown him "stuff I didn't even know happened,'' like people throwing their garbage out their door and just letting it sit there.

These days, with the economy in the tank, there are more issues than ever for code enforcement — more abandoned, overgrown, foreclosed homes; more inoperable cars in driveways, and more illegal signs for garage sales and "work from home'' opportunities.

While there is no shortage of work, citations are down. That's because county code enforcement is down. The department has been hit hard during county budget cuts.

When residents are asked what county services are most important, code enforcement is never near the top, survey results show. But ask those who live near violators about the value of keeping up the quality of neighborhoods, and the answer will be different.

As Stone walked away from the Spring Hill house, neighbor William Kistner approached him with questions about when the ongoing mess would be fixed.

"The grass was this tall,'' Kistner said, showing Stone how high it had gotten some months back, just before he decided to cut it.

"It's affecting our property values,'' Kistner said.

He should know.

Kistner recently put his home on the market. His "for sale" sign is posted in front of his neat, well-manicured property. Some recent potential buyers told his Realtor how much they liked the house, but they had some concerns about "the neighborhood.''

"It's just disgusting,'' Kistner said.

Financial, staff cuts

"Code enforcement is one of those areas that is kind of a two-edged sword,'' said Jean Rags, the county's director of health and human services, who oversees code enforcement.

There is value in having the community look clean for existing residents and to attract new people and businesses.

"You have to enforce overgrown lots or trashed-up lots,'' Rags said.

She added, however, "Yes, you want to do those things, but everything has a price.''

For code enforcement, that cost, back at the height of good economic times in 2007, was $1,024,569. For 2010, the code enforcement budget is set at $677,165. During that same time, the staff count has dropped from 14 to just nine, with five of those field officers.

Code enforcement lost its director to retirement and the interim director to early leave. And since that time, there has been a merger taking place between code enforcement and animal services. When a construction project at animal services is completed early next year, code enforcement will move out of the government center in downtown Brooksville and into the animal services facility on the south side of town.

Cross training for code enforcement and animal services officers is also part of the plan.

"There's obviously an effort being put forth to maximize our resources,'' Rags said. "But we have limited resources to address a growing number of concerns.''

She called it a domino effect: the spiraling need for more code enforcement during down economic times coupled with the lack of county financial resources to deal with complaints.

"The bottom line is that it's going to be up to the community and the elected officials to decide what's a priority,'' Rags said.

Plenty of complaints

On the stump during the 2008 election campaign, Commissioner Jeff Stabins was critical of the vigor of some code enforcement officers.

Stabins said his constituents frequently raised complaints. As he heard concerns, Stabins said he tried to convince code enforcement supervisors that they should impress on their officers the need to use discretion.

"My major gripe was that I'd rather our officers used discretion to cite people for something egregious and not in the best interest of their community, not just nail somebody on a technicality,'' Stabins said.

When he talked to Mark Caskie, former interim director for code enforcement, about his philosophy, Caskie would tell Stabins that the code was the code and asked for a definition of "egregious" that could be equally applied.

Today, Stabins said, the type of e-mails and calls he gets regarding code enforcement is very different. While he still gets complaints of overzealous enforcement, he also sees plenty of criticisms of neighborhood eyesores going unchecked — overgrown lawns and ugly, handmade signs dotting street corners.

"The e-mails have definitely switched direction,'' Stabins said.

He's seen it in his own Spring Hill neighborhood.

"Three or four blocks from my house, there's this car up on blocks that's practically in the right of way,'' he said. "I know that's a violation. It just looks terrible.''

To Stabins, the pendulum swinging toward not enough enforcement is a sign that the county has probably cut deep enough from the department.

"I'm guessing we're staffed right about where we should be, given our budgetary constraints and the $10 million we're facing in revenue shortfall next year,'' he said. "I'm guessing that we've reached a balance.''

Shifting priorities

"We always prided ourselves in being proactive and not just reactive … but we had more staff,'' said Frank McDowell, who retired in 2008 as director of the county's Code Enforcement Department.

Interest in strict code enforcement has waxed and waned over the years, depending on county leadership, said McDowell, who worked for the county for 23 years. "It comes down to money. It depends on who is in charge and what does the Board of County Commissioners want.''

What the current board has wanted is to balance the budget, and that's the reason for the cuts in staff and money for code enforcement. And the statistics show that clearly.

For example, while there were 7,849 sign removal cases in 2007-08, that number dropped to just 3,801 in 2008-09.

"It's not as high a priority as it has been in the past because we don't have the resources,'' Rags said.

Now, sweeps for illegal signs usually come just once a month, and the county has enlisted workers from the Department of Public Works to help retrieve signs when they come across them on job sites.

"We're trying to make this a collateral effort to try to get these things taken care of,'' Rags said.

Overall, comparing the last two years, citations for the top code enforcement infractions dropped from 1,096 to 723 and case numbers dropped from 16,601 to 11,481. Those numbers reflect that in 2007-08 there were 10,406 field violations, or cases caught by officers rather than complaints filed by residents, compared to 5,473 in 2008-09.

John Bloom said it's evident that code enforcement doesn't have the staffing it needs to deal with the growing problem of code violations. Signs clog road medians. Lawns grow up in otherwise well-kept neighborhoods.

"The place is starting to be a little shabby,'' said Bloom, president of the United Communities of Hernando County, an umbrella group for homeowners associations.

But Bloom said he tells people not to blame code enforcement because they are limited with what they can do with a reduced staff.

"For the job they're doing, they're never going to get any thanks,'' he said. "Even when things were good it was a thankless job.''

Rags attributes the drop in case numbers to reductions in the department and possibly another factor as well — a greater effort on the part of the county to seek compliance before beginning the formal citation process.

During the last budget year, code enforcement began sending postcards to a property owner where violations were found to see if the owner would comply first.

"We're trying to be educators,'' she said. "It's a lot of outreach and education.''

Doing what works

Stone, the code enforcement officer, agreed that education is a big part of the job. But for some people, he said, only the threat of big fines and even jail time for the totally outrageous violations are the only things that work.

On a small lot in Weeki Wachee where two adjacent buildings serve as someone's home, a front yard has big timbers, a chair, dirt and a couple of pieces of trash.

"I don't have a problem with this compared with what it looked like,'' Stone said, pulling out pictures from just a few weeks ago when the yard was piled with junk of all sorts, including tires and twisted bicycles. The original complaint on the site came in 2007.

It's taken that long to get compliance.

"Code enforcement is a really hard job to do. You don't want to tell people that they can't do what they want to do,'' Stone said.

But what they do has an impact on their neighbors, and code enforcement has to look at a situation, see how a property's condition affects a neighborhood and find a reasonable solution.

"We do have to try to mediate between neighbors,'' he said.

Code enforcement, he said, "is about keeping the peace.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Fast facts

See any eyesores?

We need your help. Where are Hernando's worst eyesores? The neighbor's property next door? The intersection down the block? Snap a photograph, and e-mail it to submit@tampabay.com. Please include your name and details, including location. We'll post the photos in an online gallery. Via regular mail, send it to: Hernando Times, 15365 Cortez Blvd., Brooksville, FL 34613.

By the numbers

$1,024,569 Code enforcement

budget in 2007

$677,165 Budget in 2010

14

Employees in 2007

9

Employees in 2010

7,849 Sign removal cases in '07-'08

3,801 Sign removal cases in '08-'09

1,096 Citations in 2007-08

723

Citations in 2008-09

Source: Hernando County Code Enforcement

Violations continue, but Hernando has fewer code enforcement officers to handle them 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 2:27pm]

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