DADE CITY — With complaints about overgrown yards at vacant homes on the rise, Pasco County is looking into getting help from an unlikely place: the pokey.
The County Commission on Tuesday asked its staff to look into whether jail inmates can be pressed into service to mow lawns and do other cleanup at empty houses.
A rise in foreclosures caused a spike in residents' complaints that vacant neighboring homes are becoming eyesores, said Commissioner Michael Cox, who pressed for drafting jail trustees.
More than 4,900 foreclosures have been filed in Pasco this year through July 31 — just short of the 5,200 filed in all of 2007, according to the clerk of courts office. In 2006? Fewer than 2,200.
The county code enforcement office doesn't have enough staff to keep up with hours of mowing and debris removal, nor the budget to hire more crews in these cash-strapped times.
The county had budgeted $80,000 this year for cleanups, but the cases piled up so quickly, it would have cost $240,000 this year to clean them all, code enforcement manager Dick Ortiz said.
Instead, Ortiz froze spending when there was just $7,000 left, and in May began turning away cleanup requests unless the property posed a health risk.
About 75 cleanup requests have been denied since May 1.
But who has plenty of time available? Inmates. And their hourly rate is, let's just say, cheap.
"This is an opportunity for them to leave the building for a day," Cox said.
"Get a suntan," cracked Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office isn't so sure about the concept.
"We have concerns about putting inmates in the neighborhoods," said spokesman Doug Tobin, who noted some offenders may be in jail on burglary charges.
While the Sheriff's Office allows nonviolent offenders under supervision to help mow the grass at county parks, do maintenance at county facilities and prepare the grounds for public events like Chasco Fiesta, those jobs are on public property. State law bars using county inmates' labor for private interests.
Tobin suggested a better option would be allowing inmates to do more work on county parks and other public property, freeing Pasco employees to do more cleanup on vacant homes.
As it stands, the county hires contractors to mow the foot-high or taller grass and weeds that rile neighbors. That often involves removing swing sets, refrigerators or other junk left behind by the last residents, Ortiz said.
The cleanups run about $475 a home.
Contractor crews, however, tend to have just a couple people, and they pass along all of their costs to the county.
Six supervised inmates could mow through a lot of grass quicker, Ortiz said.
"It'd be win-win," he said.
However, the county would still have to front some of the cost for equipment and transportation. Cox suggested placing liens on the property to recoup expenses, as Pasco does now — with mixed success.
If the county lien is deemed a lower priority than debts held by mortgage holders during a foreclosure, the county's cost might not be recovered, budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said.
But the county has a duty to help out, Cox said. Staffers will research whether it is feasible to use inmate labor, and bring the matter back to the County Commission.
"The people that live next door … think it's our obligation to address, because it's a health and safety thing," Cox said.
Researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.