Editorial: Tampa cleans up; now toughen code

Published July 26, 2013

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn appropriately used the power of his office Sunday to kick off a monthlong sweep against slumlords and junk properties. There is no way to overstate the negative impact that unkept homes and yards, broken cars and debris piles have on a neighborhood. Residents shouldn't have to put up with the nuisances, the health and safety threats, or the damage that blight causes to their property values. It shouldn't have taken a high-profile embarrassment for the city to get more aggressive in cracking down on the worst offenders.

Buckhorn ordered the sweep in the wake of William A. "Hoe" Brown's resignation as chairman of the Tampa Port Authority, after a report by the Tampa Bay Times that Brown ran an illegal and squalid mobile home park on his property in Seminole Heights. The mayor directed code enforcement to go block by block across central and north Tampa for the next 30 days, where officers will inspect 6,000 homes and target the most flagrant violations. Property owners will face fines or receive notices to appear in court.

Buckhorn gained a following on the City Council for his attention to neighborhood issues, and the mayor's appearance kicking off the sweep Sunday underscores the administration's urgency in getting code enforcement up to speed. Six of the city's 26 code enforcement officers will work the targeted area seven days a week. Buckhorn's 2014 budget, unveiled Thursday, also includes money for two additional code enforcement officers, bringing the total number to 31. These steps will build on management changes that the city adopted earlier this year that should make code enforcement more proactive and responsive.

Still, as Brown's case demonstrated, there are deplorable properties across the city in plain sight, especially in east Tampa and the central neighborhoods of Sulphur Springs. These are not hardship cases where the owner is elderly or too poor to bring the property into compliance. Many of the worst offenders are simply slumlords who don't live in the area or feel compelled to clean up their property. Others play games with the compliance process, gumming up the system and wasting public resources by staying barely a step ahead of the law.

The city should put some teeth in the code. More police should be assigned to take on illegal dumping. The city should explore criminal penalties for the worst offenders; that would get their attention and help curb the criminal activity taking place in these dilapidated properties. And the department needs more staff to follow up on complaints. Slum conditions can spread like an epidemic if the city doesn't work hard and fast to ensure that neighborhoods are maintained.