ST. PETE BEACH — If your lawn is overgrown or your swimming pool is turning green, a sheriff's deputy will soon be showing up with a notice of code violation.
"We believe that a deputy knocking on doors will make a tremendous difference in voluntary compliance," said City Manager Mike Bonfield.
In the past, code violations were handled by a city-employed code enforcement officer — a post that is being eliminated.
In many cases, repeated warnings and fines were ignored, and violations remained uncorrected.
The expanded law enforcement service was recently approved unanimously by the City Commission and will go into effect once a community police officer is hired and trained.
Although the officer's main duty will be to enforce code violations, he or she will be available to respond to other calls, like any other deputy working in the city.
The officer's schedule will be flexible, allowing coverage of code violations that may occur only on nights and weekends.
The new service is about $12,000 more than the $68,700 cost of handling code enforcement in-house.
Now, a deputy will drive up to homes and businesses in a sheriff's vehicle to issue code violation citations.
"We think this is certainly worth a try," Bonfield told the commission. "We are not locked in for a long period of time and have the option to go back in-house in the future if it seems better to handle that way."
For serious code violations that are ignored by homeowners or are occurring at abandoned or foreclosed homes, the city also is considering cutting the grass, cleaning the pool or taking other necessary actions and then billing the property owner for the abatement costs on the annual property tax bill.
Bonfield said an ordinance to do just that is being prepared in Dunedin and will be used as a template for a similar ordinance in St. Pete Beach. Ordinances, which require two votes, usually take about a month to go into effect.
Once the pending new code enforcement ordinance is in effect, the city will have a second tool to resolve code violations.
"We will be able to correct the violations or levy fines," Bonfield said.
Clearly, some code violations are "more critical" than others, he noted.
Fines on homesteaded or foreclosed properties often are never paid, he said. Instead, when the city decides to fix the problem itself, fines would stop and the bill for the abatement added to the property tax bill as an assessment.
Bonfield said that by assessing the property for abatement costs, the city will have removed the violation and recouped the cost.
Commissioner Jim Parent described one abandoned and foreclosed home on his block where fines for code violations have reached more than $100,000.
"This will improve the appearance of the city," Parent said.
Vice Mayor Lorraine Huhn called it a "professional way" to address the problem.