LARGO — When it comes to the roughly 100 derelict homes scattered around the city, Community Standards Manager Tracey Schofield told commissioners Jan. 15 that code enforcement just wasn’t cutting it.
Therefore, in a bid to crack down on the nearly 500 properties racking up well over $10 million in fines, city leaders decided it was time to open the door to foreclosures and move forward with an agreement with a lawyer who specializes in the cases.
Schofield, who heads the department that was formerly known as the Code Enforcement Division, said the city has had a number of blighted and derelict properties that reached its peak with the recession in 2008.
“We have a lot of properties that are still in very poor condition, still have fines running and, from a Community Standards point, we’re pretty much at our end,” he said. “There’s not a lot we can do to address those. We have fines running every day, we have officers out there every day reinspecting them, but they’re not being brought into compliance. Really the last step that we have is a foreclosure process on some of these properties.”
If commissioners sign off on the agreement Jan. 22, it would join St. Petersburg and Clearwater in hiring the St. Petersburg-based Matthew Weidner law firm to target both commercial and residential properties in hopes of pressuring owners to clean them up.
“It (the foreclosure process) is reenergizing the property owners to do the right thing sometimes — sell the property, bring the property into compliance, coordinate things with these cities to help with housing and things of those natures,” Schofield said.
He noted that the process does not target homesteaded properties, and city has no intention of displacing anyone.
For Commissioner Curtis Holmes, this has been a long time coming.
“I’ve been in favor of going after these properties a long time ago, so when I first read this thing, this was a ‘thank you Jesus’ moment,” he said.
What made the deal even better, he said, was that it wouldn’t cost the city anything, because, as Schofield explained, Weidner would only be making money from settlements or the sale of foreclosed homes.
He added that blighted and derelict properties are not the only ones that could be targeted. Ultimately, it could be any property that has unpaid fines and liens after 90 days.
He said either Code Enforcement Board action or a staff decision could trigger the process on a property, but, if approved, staff would sit down with Widener and he would likely identify the best cases to move forward on.
The City Attorney’s Office, however, would still have oversight over decisions on cases that, according to Widener, typically take about four months each.
Despite the potential financial benefits, Schofield emphasized that the purpose of the measure was to improve properties that, in some cases, could be racking up fines for over a decade.
“The ultimate goal is to bring these properties into compliance, make them a viable part of our city, bring new businesses, bring new residents into the city and bring the city back,” Schofield said. “Obviously, we’ll try to recoup some of those lost costs. The city has a lot of money invested in these properties. You can imagine over years the inspections and staff costs that goes along to keep these cases open, not counting the city attorney’s cost involved.”