Safety Harbor is the latest of several Pinellas cities to offer struggling residents burdened by code enforcement liens on their homes the opportunity to settle up with the city and get a clean start. Both the city of Safety Harbor and residents of that city may benefit, but it is not surprising that some residents and even city officials wonder why the residents should get such a break.
Through action by the City Commission Monday, certain property owners have until Sept. 30 to apply for an amnesty program that will allow them to settle their case by paying only 15 percent of the unpaid fines on their properties. If their application for amnesty is approved, they will have 90 days to pay up.
The program is open to residents whose properties have accumulated code violations and fines that have not been paid, so the city has placed a lien on their property. The city estimates that about 40 property owners are in that category, and they have accumulated about $1 million in unpaid fines. The city traditionally does not foreclose on homes because of a code enforcement lien, so violators have had little incentive to pay.
The city decided to offer a short amnesty program after several property owners asked for it. A recent St. Petersburg Times story focused on one property owner, a widow who works as a supermarket cashier, who has accumulated fines of $90,000 — half the value of her home — and has no realistic way of paying the bill.
The city recognized that it likely never would collect the full fines from some of the 40 property owners, especially given current economic conditions. A majority of the City Commission decided that if the city could collect 15 percent, it was better than nothing, and the city also would eliminate the burden and cost of keeping up with active liens.
The amnesty program was approved 4 to 1 Monday, with Vice Mayor Nina Bandoni voting nay. Bandoni said that she felt the city had failed to take into consideration the neighbors of the violators, who sometimes have endured numerous problems because their neighbors' properties were not properly maintained.
Some residents also questioned why these blatant and determined violators of city law should be given any break at all by the city. It is a valid question.
However, an important and necessary component of the Safety Harbor amnesty program is that property owners cannot participate if there are any current code violations on their land; the city will inspect the property to make sure. So not only must the original code violations be fixed, but no new ones can be present on the property. Neighbors should find that a benefit.
Also, the amnesty program is short-lived, and after it ends, the city is expected to adopt some rigid guidelines for the future about code enforcement fines and how and when they may be reduced.
Commissioners were trying to be realistic in their passage of the amnesty program and also hoping to collect at least some revenue from the offending property owners. Without the program, it is unlikely the city ever would collect a dime from these owners whose properties are a blight on their neighborhoods.