DUNEDIN — City commissioners are going to get into the weeds to address issues pertaining to code enforcement.
They will use a consulting firm to review their code-enforcement efforts, which received national media attention in recent months stemming from some large fines levied against some homeowners.
At a work session Oct. 15, City Manager Jennifer Bramley said Calvin, Giordano & Associates Inc. of Fort Lauderdale will assess the processes presently used and how it meets all the requirements under state law.
“I just want to lay it on the table. We’ve had a very difficult spring. We’ve had a very difficult summer as far as our code enforcement goes,” Bramley said.
Among the topics under consideration is an amnesty program through which fines could be reduced. Bramley wants to see how other cities conduct mitigation efforts. She also discussed using a settlement agreement process by which properties are sold, rehabilitated and brought up to code within a certain amount of time.
“And that way we can turn some of our vacant and abandoned structures into code-compliant homes and put them back on market and have them be part of the neighborhood again,” she said.
Bramley said city officials also want to present data about the use of a special magistrate for hearing cases as opposed to cases being brought before the city’s code board, though she complimented the board for its hard work.
Commissioner Moe Freaney said there are procedures that should be addressed, and it is good for the process to have a healthy review.
A former assistant county manager, Freaney said county officials were criticized for dropping large fines against code violators.
“So there does seem like there has to be a better way that doesn’t seem so shocking to people to think we would actually be going after that kind of money when in the end we never typically take that kind of money,” Freaney said.
However, she and other commissioners said they hear frequently from residents who have complaints about their neighbors’ properties.
“There really is a balance, and we are getting hit from both sides,” Commissioner Jeff Gow said.
Commissioner Heather Gracy said she knows there is room for improvement and the community needs peace of mind. She expressed support for the consulting firm.
“The narratives that can come from you and the best practices … your organization would certainly help us on a new path forward,” she said.
Commissioner Deborah Kynes said the way to take away the power “of the proverbial elephant in the room is by openly and honestly discussing and addressing the elephant in the room.”
“I think this is going to give us a chance to do this,” she said.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said to just mow the grass on property in violation of codes, the city has to have appropriate programs in place.
“‘If we are not getting compliance from a person in seven years, we are not going to magically get it,” Ward Bujalski said.
She also said customer service training is important.
“It’s one thing to be a customer service rep when you are making phone calls,” she said. “It’s another when you are facing angry people,” she said.
She also expressed confidence in Bramley, noting that she has 30 years of experience dealing with code enforcement issues in her career.
An owner of house in Dunedin for 32 years, Bill Prescott told commissioners a fine on his property has exceeded $44,000.
Though he’s challenging the fines in Pinellas County Circuit Court, he said he was encouraged by the comments he heard that day and at a recent work session.
He recommended that the city disallow anonymous complaints about properties they consider to be unkempt.
“People should own up to their grievances about someone’s else’s property,” he said.
Prescott also recommended that the city create an ombudsman position to be a catalyst to resolve problems regarding properties and provide training for code enforcement board members.
Calvin, Giordano and Associates is currently under contract with the city as a consultant. They will review the list of violations provided by the city and present processes pertaining to repeat offender cases and other code-enforcement issues. The cost for their work, which is expected to be completed in six weeks, is $15,000.
Bramley said the City Commission has made a commitment to improve the processes, and she wants to be transparent. But she also drew the line at turning over code enforcement to another entity.
“I want to be very clear. I approached this agreement without an eye toward outsourcing code compliance in the city of Dunedin,” Bramley said.