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Pinellas seeks to avoid code enforcement calamity

What would you do if the grass got so long at a vacant house on your block that it was sheltering rats?

What about if your neighbor put broken-down cars up on blocks in his front yard?

Or if you saw someone cutting down protected mangroves?

If you live in unincorporated Pinellas County, you probably would call county government to make a complaint. And within a couple of days, according to county officials, a code enforcement officer would be assigned to investigate.

That's how it worked in the past. But in the future, a code complaint could sit for a week or two before it would get a first response from county staffers — even 18 to 20 days at times. Follow-up inspections could wait up to 40 days.

That's because the county budget for 2010-2011 proposes cutting six more code enforcement staffers, reducing manpower in that office to 12. That's the number the office had in 1997.

County officials are frank about what the cut would mean: an end to the county's proactive inspection program, replaced by a complaint-driven program. And there would be long delays in responding even to those.

That worries County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel.

"I'm very concerned," she said at a recent commission budget workshop. "To go back to 1997 levels of staffing is horrendous."

Commissioner Calvin Harris wasn't happy either.

"Everything just falls off the cliff," Harris said. "You put so much time and effort into building a community and then you say, 'We just can't do this anymore.' ''

Pinellas residents have begun to complain about the changes they've noticed in this, the fourth year of county budget cuts. Long grass along roadsides and easements. More potholes. Less-frequent cleaning of park bathrooms and picnic shelters.

But Seel is worried about more than appearances. Because of the economy and the foreclosure crisis, many homes and businesses sit empty around Pinellas. Some have been broken into or may even have squatters living in them. Many are becoming dilapidated and the grounds overgrown. Backyard swimming pools are covered with scum and breed mosquitoes.

Conditions like these can cause a decline in property values and become a threat to public health and safety. Commissioner Susan Latvala recently complained about some burned buildings in North Pinellas that had not been razed or secured and were hazards. On Thursday, Seel was checking out a home that had flooded — in part, she said, because a foreclosed property next door was not properly maintained.

Some of the dilapidated properties are "accidents waiting to happen," Seel said. That's why she has suggested the County Commission save two of the six code enforcement positions County Administrator Bob LaSala suggested be cut as he tries to close wide gaps between costs and revenues.

The money to pay the two staffers' salary and benefits would have to come out of a reserve fund, even though the county doesn't like using reserves to pay for ongoing expenses like salaries. Seel suggests doing so for just one year and using that year to find an alternative.

The county already is looking at cross training code enforcement officers and building inspectors, but Seel wants the county and Pinellas cities to share code enforcement duties.

It isn't as simple as it sounds. Pinellas cities have their own codes, which differ from the county codes. The codes can be complex, so it may not be reasonable to expect the code enforcement officer for one city to master all the codes of other cities or the county.

Seel thinks there still may be ways to cooperate and save money. She's exploring some ideas she has heard about, such as sharing manpower on just those codes that have to do with health and safety and are likely to be common across jurisdictions. For example, most local governments have codes that require pools to be drained or covered if they aren't in use, grass to be cut and garbage containerized to discourage rats and other vermin, and unoccupied buildings to be secured.

The County Commission still must make a formal decision about the county administrator's proposal to cut the six positions, but Seel hopes to get enough support to save two and then start talks with the cities.

It is one thing to have to sacrifice niceties such as meticulously groomed parks and medians because of this recession. But allowing hazardous conditions to exist and multiply is something we can't afford.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials of the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.

Pinellas seeks to avoid code enforcement calamity 08/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 2:16pm]
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