The city of Zephyrhills is taking a hard look at its code enforcement policies — in an effort to maintain property values and make the community more desirable.
According to City Manager Steve Spina, that starts with taking “a holistic view” on the issue.
“When people come to visit, they need to drive through town and see a vibrant commercial business community, a vibrant downtown,” Spina said. “People are going to move a business here and look at the schools, the recreation and the quality of life issues — and if they’re driving from the airport to somewhere else, and it’s not a pretty picture, they don’t stay.”
During a regular Oct. 23 meeting, the city manager and building inspector Bill Burgess delved into the city’s code enforcement efforts — outlining progress and limitations, along with various initiatives and solutions.
Alan Knight, council president, several weeks ago requested an update on citywide code enforcement issues, citing growing concerns about blighted structures and dilapidated communities.
Attacking the problem head-on is a continuous battle, city officials say.
“A lot of times, code enforcement is two steps forward, three steps back,” Spina said.
“Over the last five to six years, there’s been action, but sometimes it’s just hard to keep up with the level of problems that we face,” Spina said.
Burgess concurred: “We have seen a turn a little in the wrong direction, and it’s a little harder to stay ahead of it than it was in the past.”
City staffers this year have made more than 900 code-related contacts, completing 35 mowing and abatements, which has led to issuing $2,400 in citations and $750 litigation. There’s also been one demolition and two neighborhood cleanups.
From 2011 to 2016, Zephyrhills had 36 demolitions and collected $85,000 in mowing fees and abatements, and liens and administrative costs. Additionally, city staff made more than 7,200 contacts with residents and business owners related to code enforcement issues.
That includes Funk Street, formerly a notorious “drug haven,” south of town. In a span of two years, the city removed 34 trailers and cleaned the site up entirely.
But, addressing similar run-down parts of the city has proven to be a challenging and time-consuming task.
The issues, city leaders say, continually are tied to changes in demographics, drug infestation, cheap housing conditions and mental health issues, among others.
Lack of adequate funding and resources is another issue.
The city’s Building Department has six employees. It had five in 1991.
The code enforcement division has one full-time and one part-time employee, each able to make five contacts to 10 contacts per day.
Local and federal funds for demolitions of blighted structures also have recently dried up.
“We’re back on our dime,” Burgess said.
Meanwhile, legal procedures in repairing blighted structures often delays code enforcement efforts.
“It can be a lengthy process, just to get one house or one property done,” Spina said.
“When you do make contact, it’s not just simply you go up and knock on a door. Sometimes you have to go back, write letters, do research. It’s time-consuming,” Burgess added.
“It seems easy…but, if they don’t (respond) or if they’re not accepting of that, then we have to go through that whole process, where there’s a lot of time involved,” he said.
Spina noted the city continuously deals with repeat violators, some of whom have been to court or have been jailed before.
“We’re dealing with the same people, over and over. We’ve had people that we’ve put in jail and they’re back out, and there’s no resolution to the problem,” Spina said.
The city also has some absentee landlords and revolving tenants, plus cheap rental rates throughout the city, that contribute to the problem, Spina said.
The city is ranked fourth nationally in affordable housing.
“That’s a good thing for different communities, depending on economic and social conditions, and job opportunities, but it also can be a negative,” Spina said.
In light of ongoing struggles, Spina outlined several initiatives to try to solve code enforcement issues “from a number of different ways.”
Some of the ideas he presented, include:
- Planning for CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funding to help with neighborhood blight
- Toughening up city ordinances, to include citing rental owners, as well as tenants, for code violations
- Consulting with other communities, such as New Port Richey, on their code enforcement plans
- Utilizing Zephyrhills Police reserve officers, once the reserve program is re-established, to assist with related code enforcement matters
- Developing an in-house demolition program
- Continuing with neighborhood cleanups to assist in removing household trash, debris, appliances, tires and so on
- Adding staff to the code enforcement division
The formation of an interdepartmental intelligence committee, coordinated by the Zephyrhills Police Department is one step that’s already been taken.
The task force — involving police, utility workers, public works employees, Planning Department, Community Redevelopment Agency — places more people on the streets to look for issues, and watch for abnormal behavior and suspicious activities.
Spina noted it’s already netted several arrests since the summer.
“We see how it’s working. It’s a key element of what we’re doing, and it shows the need also for interdepartmental cooperation and how well people work together,” he said.
The city’s lien forgiveness program and neighborhood cleanups also have netted encouraging results, Spina said.
More staffing for the code enforcement division, however, garnered the most attention—and support—from the council.
“Personnel is the key to this,” Mayor Gene Whitfield said.
Council president Alan Knight also suggested taking “a serious look” at staffing, considering the city’s impending growth — like the development of 1,500 new homes.
“I think our code enforcement people are doing a real good job. It’s just a massive job,” Knight said.
Councilman Lance Smith, meanwhile, suggested a “more aggressive” comprehensive plan on code enforcement.
The plan, he said, would specifically identify programs, staffing needs and technological opportunities, to be implemented sometime next year.
“We need to look at it really seriously,” Smith said. “I’d say right now maybe we’re treading water, but if we’re not going to do more, then we’re going to be underwater.”
Published November 1, 2017