County may try anonymous code enforcement complaints

Tired of seeing a neighbor’s car up on concrete blocks? Worried that snakes are finding a paradise in a home’s overgrown yard on your street?

Code violations are not just something that makes a neighborhood ugly, but can make it unsafe as well. Old swimming pools, like this one, create a hazard that could injure people, especially children. (Courtesy of Joaquin Servia)

Code violations are not just something that makes a neighborhood ugly, but can make it unsafe as well. Old swimming pools, like this one, create a hazard that could injure people, especially children.
(Courtesy of Joaquin Servia)

Making a complaint to Pasco County’s Customer Service Department requires a name, address and telephone number. But it might not be that way for long.

Pasco County Commissioners are exploring the idea of allowing the option to report code violations and other problems anonymously. It would help encourage neighbors to keep Pasco looking good without the fear of retaliation. But not everyone on the commission is on board.

“I am very concerned with going anonymous,” Commissioner Henry Wilson said during a workshop last week in Dade City. “I think it would be a huge burden to the (code enforcement) officers, but I will defer to them. If they think it’s the better option to do that, then I would be willing to look into it.”

Joaquin Servia, Pasco’s code enforcement manager, said moving to a system where someone didn’t have to give their name when filing a complaint could require more money and manpower than his department currently has.

“There is a real chance that just accepting pure anonymous complaints is going to increase the number of frivolous complaints we get,” Servia said. “It could just turn into spite, a neighbor-on-neighbor-type of dispute that gets elevated to where now you can use government to club your neighbor over the head.”

However, many people don’t complain about problems they see in their neighborhoods, because the fear of reprisal is just too great, Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said.

“When they call in to complain, their cars get keyed and they get trash thrown in their yards,” she said. “Seems to me that we can do a mixture of these two (named complaints and anonymous), where we could take down the number and information of the person making the complaint, but not give it out.”

Except the county would not be able to do that, Servia said. Even a code enforcement complaint is public record, and government would have to comply with public records laws in releasing that information to anyone who asks for it, even the neighbor that’s being reported.

“Then I would rather do anonymous,” Starkey said. “If we have more work, then it’s because we have a lot of need.”

While official complaints do require names and contact information, there are ways to get around that, Commissioner Jack Mariano said. One of those ways is to reach out directly to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, and many times they will forward complaints without including the name of the person making the complaint.

Doing that, however, would require the person know how to step past the requirements, which many likely would not.

Patrick Phillips, a code enforcement field supervisor, told commissioners that any jump in workload would be difficult for his people to absorb.

“With the resources we have available to us now, we would not be able to do it,” he said. “Complaints that come in through homeowners associations and citizen calls, a good portion of the time, the complaint is not valid. Is that a waste of resource? Yeah.

“So if we were to take anonymous complaints across the board, we are going to take a look at a spike in that,” Phillips added.

Mariano loves the sweeps code enforcement conducts from time to time, because not only will it take care of a problem neighborhood, but it also causes surrounding neighborhoods to shape up because they are concerned they’ll be targeted next.

Yet, sweeps hitting property after property in a specific area require a lot of manpower, which pulls them away from everywhere else.

“We have to draw about 50 percent of our resources to do that,” Phillips said. “That’s 50 percent of our county that is not being covered. So what we gain ground here, we’re losing ground over there.”

Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who wasn’t at the workshop, will likely be the swing vote on any decision with code enforcement. The commission itself was split with Starkey and Mariano leaning toward allowing anonymous complaints, and Wilson and Ted Schrader against it.

The commission did not set a timetable on when it would be addressed again.

Published May 21, 2014

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