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$66M IN FINES LOST - MAYBE

A Tampa official calls the figure from uncollected code violations suspect.

Property owners with trash-strewn or overgrown lots and other code violations have racked up $66-million in fines over the past 10 years that the city has not collected.

The total, released this week by the code enforcement department, took neighborhood activists and some City Council members by surprise.

"Wow. That's unbelievable," said council member John Dingfelder. "We could make up this year's budget deficit if we had been enforcing and collecting a significant portion of those fines."

The number includes $22.6-million in fines for 2,931 owner-occupied properties and $43.7-million in fines for 1,963 commercial and other properties.

The city is cutting about $20-million from its budget next year to accommodate reduced revenues due to property tax reform.

City Attorney David Smith, whose department is in charge of collecting most code violation fines, questioned the $66-million figure.

"The information is not very useful," he said.

Smith said the code enforcement data was pulled from an antiquated computer system, and a cursory review of commercial, investment and other similar properties with outstanding fines shows many of them would not be collectible.

Some are owned by government agencies, other cases have been settled or the properties have been foreclosed on by the mortgage holder or have other liens against them.

"We don't have data to tell you whether that $43-million number should be $5-million or $500,000 because the system doesn't keep track of it," he said. "We need better data in order to be more efficient in our collection efforts. Based on the information we have, we're doing all we can."

Collecting the money can be complicated. State law allows the government to obtain the money through liens on property and foreclosures, Smith said.

It takes a hearing by the code enforcement board to levy a fine, but once it is approved it ratchets up daily if the problem isn't fixed. The amount can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mayor Pam Iorio made code enforcement a top priority after her election in 2003. She turned what had been a division into its own department and in 2005 pledged to foreclose on properties owned by severe offenders.

But so far, foreclosure proceedings have begun on only about half a dozen properties.

One resulted in a settlement. The rest are still in process, Smith said.

Collections, though, have increased in recent years.

They totaled more than $1.3-million in the last fiscal year, up from $614,142 in 2004. The money goes to the code enforcement and legal departments.

Council member Joseph Caetano, who requested the report, said he wants to see the city do more.

He said he's only interested in pursuing fines due on nonhomesteaded properties.

"I don't want to hurt any resident who has code violations because they can't fix it or don't have the money to fix it," he said.

Caetano said he understands that collecting the fines can be complicated. But he would like to see the legal department figure out a way to get some of the money.

"They have to go after them," he said. "What's the point of having the code enforcement officers, then?"

Caetano wondered if the task could be outsourced.

"Let's put it out to some type of bid process and let some outside attorneys go after it and put them on a contingency, like a bounty hunter," he said.

Tampa isn't alone with its high number of outstanding code violation fines.

Hillsborough County has $51.7-million in outstanding fines, and it has had a similar experience.

"That's not a number we expect to collect," said Karen Matches, the county's manager of support for citizen boards.

Typically, she said, the county collects about 5 percent of what it's owed. Matches said the properties often have multiple liens on them or are worth less than the total fines.

Over the past four years, the county has collected about $4.6-million in code violation fines.

Smith noted that the goal of code enforcement isn't to make money or accumulate property.

The primary goal, he said, is for people to clean up their properties.

But neighborhood activist Randy Baron called the lost revenue "obscene."

"The city has wasted an opportunity to make up some of this budget shortfall that they're experiencing now," he said. "How many parks would be staying open if they had been collecting on the fines?"

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

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