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Code enforcement moving in right direction

Ken Turtle calls it a Christmas present. Indeed, Pasco County government's response to code complaints is encouraging.

Turtle is the Holiday man who pulled together representatives from west Pasco homeowners' associations over the summer to pitch the pressing need for better enforcement of county codes in unincorporated Pasco County.

Turtle focused on unkempt property, junk cars and litter. Those things can be the difference between an older neighborhood aging gracefully and the onset of widespread suburban blight.

County officials listened and agreed to rework their operations in an attempt to streamline the way the code compliance department deals with violations. The department received more than 18,000 complaints in the 12-month period ending Oct. 1. Most common complaints involve overgrown lots or trash and junk strewn about.

Currently, a property owner has 30 days to take care of a problem from the time a notice of violation is received. If the property owner ignores it, that person is notified a second time and ordered to appear before the county's code compliance board, which can levy daily fines if a violation persists.

The system is troublesome because of time delays. Under the changes being drafted, property owners will receive simultaneously the notice of violation and an order to appear before the board. That will eliminate a delay of several weeks in the enforcement process.

Similarly, the county will crack down on repeat violators. Rules now require a case to be closed once a problem is corrected. If the problem reappears, a new complaint must be received before the case is started again and the notification process begins anew. The county intends to change that process to reduce the grace period for repeat violations.

A third change calls for the county's code compliance officers to be issued badges and uniforms to present a more formal image of authority. Currently, officers wear the same tan shirts and brown pants as other county employees. The more official enforcement uniform follows the lead of other nearby counties.

This is the county's second recent attempt to update code compliance. Last year, the commission changed its ordinance to reduce the height at which lawns are considered in violation and also made it easier for people to file complaints.

The proposed changes are welcome, but they should not be considered a final solution. County commissioners and their constituents need to ponder the emphasis, or lack thereof, on voluntary code compliance. Particularly at a time when much of the housing on the county's west side is aging. Overgrown grass, abandoned vehicles and litter are unsightly, reduce property values, attract rodents and pose potential health hazards.

The county staffs its code compliance department with 11 officers, the same personnel it had more than a decade ago. Staffing remains status quo even though the county population will have grown by 18 percent, or more than 51,000 people, during the 1990s.

Commissioner Steve Simon agrees more officers are needed. Whether the county will increase its personnel, however, remains uncertain. For years, it has operated under a mandate of no new programs, no new personnel.

In that atmosphere, the public should be part of the solution. Some homeowner associations assist the county by attempting to rectify neighborhood problems before contacting the code compliance departments.

That lead should be followed. A public reluctant to pay additional property taxes for additional services must share the responsibility of maintaining the quality of life in their own neighborhoods.

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