Monday, May 21, 2018
Opinion

Bowen: County codes seek spiffy, but settle for shabby

Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey has a simple description for the devices known as air dancers or air puppets — those giant, air-filled, string-bean-like characters with flapping arms that businesses use to attract attention.

"Very cheesy,'' Starkey said.

Who can argue?

Starkey was one the founders of Scenic Pasco, the citizens group that successfully lobbied the county to change its sign ordinance a dozen years ago to cut back on road side clutter.

The cheesy arm-flapper? Aesthetically challenged, but not illegal. The county allows such devises, along with banners, balloons and other flapping-in-the-breeze signs on a temporary basis, with a proper permit. It's one of the dilemmas confronting Pasco County as it tries to balance business appearances with business acumen. One commissioner's cheesy is another person's bread and butter.

But Starkey is right to try to put an emphasis on county code enforcement, the subject of a commission workshop last week. Here's why: Code enforcement officers traveled U.S. 19 in west Pasco in January for what they termed an educational sweep for business owners. Officers discovered 125 sign violations. Granted, business owners might be doing all they can to call attention to their locations in the face of ongoing construction along U.S. 19 where orange barrels are synonymous with lane closures and slowing traffic. Still, follow-up visits from officers three weeks later discovered just 59 of the business owners had complied with the sign regulations. In other words, more than half ignored the county code enforcement officers.

The penalty? None, since the mission was dubbed educational from the outset and officers did not issue citations. Starkey wondered about the message the county sent to the business owners who complied since those who didn't faced no punitive action.

Good question. If nothing else, it means officers should soon make another trip up and down U.S. 19 with citations at the ready.

Signs, however, are just a small part of the code enforcement effort. In neighborhoods, officers are on the lookout for overgrown lots, trash, broken windows, pools without fences or cages, inoperable autos and other junk that makes a house unsightly and unsafe, and can signal a residential area's potential deterioration, reduced property values and increased crime.

This isn't a new conversation for commissioners. A year ago, administrators said code enforcement was staffed by 14 officers, down from 24 just six years earlier. Regardless, a commission majority balked at a proposal to hire four new officers because of the cost, and declined again a couple of weeks later when administrators proposed a slimmed down and less expensive plan to add just two officers.

There are numbers besides dollars and cents that commissioners must heed. Consider the past results of the survey measuring how Pasco residents feel about their county compared to the attitudes of people in other communities around the country. For overall appearance, Pasco ranked 250 of 251 communities taking the survey, meaning only one other locale in the United States looks trashier than Pasco County as measured by its own poll answers. The numbers are equally disturbing for code enforcement (297 of 312 communities) and overall cleanliness (187 of 231).

There is no way to sugar coat the results. The residents responding to the survey believe Pasco County is ugly, dirty and does a poor job at enforcing its own codes and/or has rules that are too relaxed from the outset. (Arm-waving air puppets, anyone?)

Commissioners should resolve to avoid being their own version of air puppets flopping from side to side. A year ago, Commissioner Henry Wilson endorsed hiring new code officers during a June workshop, but later changed his mind. Likewise, Commissioner Pat Mulieri initially objected, but later favored spending the money to hire more officers. Unfortunately, a three-person majority of Wilson, Ted Schrader and Jack Mariano killed the plan, calling it unaffordable for the 2014 budget.

It is a debate that will resurface this summer as part of the 2015 budget deliberations and one for which Starkey already is prepared.

"Property values will go up,'' she told the commission last week, "if the place looks better.''

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