DUNEDIN — City commissioners agreed Dec. 3 to cap fines for code enforcement violations and wait and see if they are effective and stiff enough to deal with the “bad actors.”

For months, city officials have been discussing fees as part of an evaluation of the city's code-enforcement process. Consultants recommended the capping of fines to alleviate what looked like disproportionately high fees.

"I would like to get our system a chance to work because I think we can change it again if we need to," Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said.

Along those lines, interim city Community Development Director Joseph DiPasqua suggested to commissioners that after six meetings of the code enforcement board, they could monitor new cases and see if they are causing any problems.

The way city officials are handling code compliance now, few cases are rising, DiPasqua said.

"We are getting compliance on almost 100 percent in a pandemic," he said.

Under the ordinance approved that evening, a fine imposed by the Code Enforcement Board will not exceed $250 per day for a first violation and $500 per day for a repeat violation. If the violation is irreversible, the board may impose a fine up to $5,000 per violation. The maximum fine for any one continuing violation will be fixed at 20 times the original daily amount.

Commissioners Jeff Gow, Deborah Kynes and John Tornga voted with Bujalski to adopt the ordinance capping fines on final reading. Commissioner Moe Freaney cast the dissenting vote, saying that by lowering fees extremely they are protecting the “bad actors.”

"Say somebody has boat in their driveway. 'OK. $5,000 bucks (fine). Cool. I can't find a place better to store it better than that. I'll just leave it there,'" she said.

Kynes said discussion of the issue has been dragging, and city officials should give the ordinance the time to determine whether the penalties are too light. If commissioners see any glaring errors, she said, they can look at making changes in six months.

Tornga agreed that commissioners can later change the ordinance if needed.

"But put in place and move on," he said.

Gow said he is ready to implement the ordinance.

Bujalski said once the regulations are in place, the city officials can give commissioners an annual report and discusses the code cases and amount of them they have.

"We are going to make mistakes along the way," Bujalski said. "This is brand new territory for all of us — for everybody," she said.

According to city documents, nine local governments in the area do not cap code enforcement fines. Two of them, Largo and Pinellas County, may examine the issue soon.

The capping of fines applies to cases brought before the code enforcement board.

That usually doesn't occur until after there has been verbal attempts to get voluntary compliance; often that includes courtesy notices and other action, DiPasqua said.

"So it's a long time before it gets in front our code enforcement board and those liens imposed," DiPasqua said.

The board also considers appeals.

He said that cases involving multiple violations mostly involve issues with homes, such as overgrowth of vegetation, debris, painting issues, leaky roofs and rodent presence.

The capping of fines and other actions city officials are discussing pertaining to code enforcement stems from a lawsuit a homeowner filed against the city after he had accrued $30,000 in fines stemming from uncut grass