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Tampa blames budget for failure to clear vacant lots

Despite failing four inspections since October, despite Lilly Franklin's pleas that the lot be cleared of brush and debris that could conceal criminals, the lot's owner did nothing _ until Franklin was murdered next door.

The owner was never fined up to $250 a day, as a city ordinance allows.

The owner was never brought before the city's Code Enforcement Board, or even ordered to clean things up.

That's because the rules don't apply to this particular owner: the city of Tampa's Real Estate Division.

Tampa, in effect, was in violation of its own ordinance _ and city officials say there is little they could do about it. They say there isn't money to mow the lots, even though Mayor Sandy Freedman has made it a priority to spruce up the city.

"We've been in a budget crunch for years," said John Dunn, a spokesman for Freedman. "It's the cold reality."

The city owns about 400 vacant lots, many in a similar state to the one at 1523 W Grace St. in West Tampa.

It was that lot that drew the anger of Franklin, a 62-year-old cafeteria worker who lived next door and was found stabbed a few feet away Thursday morning.

She is one of four black women stabbed to death in the area since September. Investigators are not saying the killings are linked, and no arrests have been made in Franklin's death.

Franklin and her neighbors repeatedly complained about the lot. They said the overgrown weeds and dead trees provided perfect places for criminals to lie in wait.

Such comments are common in the poorer sections of Tampa. Overgrown, garbage-strewn property, and allegations of city neglect, have been a campaign issue in recent elections. And law enforcement officials have encouraged clearing the lots to discourage crime.

Dunn said the city has budgeted only $80,000 a year to mow and maintain the lots _ a job he said would cost more than $1-million annually if done properly.

One reason that price is so high is the mayor's determination to strengthen code enforcement efforts in the city. In recent years, the city has aggressively foreclosed on hundreds of vacant, overgrown lots. One of them was the lot next to Franklin's property.

A building on that lot was demolished as part of a well-publicized campaign to rid the city of crack houses. But once the city obtained such properties, it never provided the money to care for them.

Police don't know if the killer used the Grace Street lot to jump out of the darkness to kill Franklin. She was on her way to work about 5:45 a.m.

"Remember, this was a bad spot. There was a bar there and lots of drug dealing," Dunn said.

City work crews descended on the lot, and 25 others in the area, only hours after Franklin was killed. One other lot was city-owned; the others were owned by a variety of people.

All but one has a history of neglect. At some point in recent years, Dunn said, each of the lots was in compliance, but with little money they deteriorated again.

The city gets about 22,000 code violation complaints a year, said Joe Husky, manager of the city's Division of Standards and Enforcement.

"The process can be slow," said Husky, who has only 10 inspectors to check vacant lot complaints. Owners are given a notice to clean things up. If an inspection shows no work was done, another notice goes out.

If a second inspection still reveals an overgrown lot, the owner is taken before the Code Enforcement Board. Continued violations can lead the city to foreclose on the property.

The residents living along Grace Street were still recovering Friday from the shock of the most recent attack.

Tampa police officers went door-to-door throughout the area to distribute fliers asking residents to search their homes, yards, and nearby alleyways for Franklin's missing black shoulder bag and the knife used to kill her, said spokesman Steve Cole.

The Guardian Angels said they plan to start patrolling the area tonight.

_ Times staff writer Marty Rosen contributed to this report.