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Port Richey sets up its own hearing process

The City Council adopted new procedures Tuesday that take code violations and appeals out of the county court system.

"We're . . . taking these violations out of the criminal arena and making them civil offenses," City Manager Vince Lupo said. "And we're establishing a hearing master for the appeals process."

Infractions ranging from excessive noise-making to illegal parking violate city code. Before the changes, only police officers could issue citations to violators, and those citations were enforced by the county courts.

Now building officials and police officers can issue citations and fines up to $500. Disputes over those citations will be settled by a code enforcement special master hired by the city.

Likewise, the special master will be called in if a resident does not pay the fines levied or correct the offenses in a timely manner.

Some of the most significant penalty changes relate to parking fines, which were raised from $5 to $15 with a grace period of 10 days to pay. Unpaid parking fines will be referred to the county tax collector and collected when license tags are renewed.

In addition, vehicle-for-hire companies such as taxicab and non-emergency ambulance services must pay a $250 fee before getting a certificate of public convenience and need.

City Attorney Paul Marino said the changes reflect a trend to decriminalize offenses such as repeated false alarms and failing to obtain proper occupational permits.

Since the court system has shown little interest in code violation cases, city officials said, they decided to set up their own hearing process. Lupo said the special master would likely be a retired judge or a professional whose area of expertise coincided with the dispute but who worked in a neighboring county.

Special masters serve for six months and are paid with a portion of the fines they levy.

In other action, council members scheduled a work session for 7:30 p.m. May 6 to discuss the city's comprehensive plan.