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When the city is a poor neighbor

Tampa city workers finally arrived to clear the city-owned lot next to Lillie Franklin's house. Debris, weeds and dead trees were removed hours after the school cafeteria worker was stabbed to death next to the overgrown field.

The city violated its own ordinance by allowing its property to become overgrown. Franklin had complained repeatedly that the lot could be a hiding place for criminals, but the city failed to act until she became the fourth black woman recently killed in the neighborhood.

No one can say that Franklin would be alive if the city had cleared the lot. But her murder gives a tragic dimension to the common experience of people who live in poor neighborhoods everywhere.

It's difficult enough for concerned citizens to fight the absentee landlords, decay and crime that all contribute to an area's decline without having to fight the city as well. How can negligent property owners be persuaded to bring their properties up to code when the city flouts its own rules?

The problem is not limited to Tampa. Many cities routinely shortchange poor neighborhoods and allow deterioration that would not be tolerated in an area with $200,000 homes. Citizens in those neighborhoods must fight for code enforcement, cleanup efforts and basic services that are taken for granted elsewhere.

The city's usual excuse is a tight budget. The real barrier isn't money, however, but a lack of political power that keeps such neighborhoods low on the list of priorities. In Tampa, federal grant money was available to clear overgrown, vacant lots, and a citizens committee that advises the city on how to spend the money asked last year that some of it be spent for that purpose. Money wasn't a problem after Franklin's death, when crews fanned out to clear 26 lots in the West Tampa neighborhood, two of them city-owned. It shouldn't take a murder to get that kind of minimal attention.

Mayor Sandy Freedman has stressed the improvement of Tampa neighborhoods during her administration, and created a much-touted program to target areas for special attention by police, residents and code enforcement. Ironically, the bulk of the lots were acquired through foreclosure when property owners refused to clear them. But that effort is a joke if the city is just as poor a caretaker.

The city needs to determine how many of its parcels are violating code and bring them into compliance. Tampa must put its own house _ and property _ in order.