Hendry commissioners will be ‘taking a drill’ to code enforcement

LABELLE — Code enforcement has been a hot topic for continual discussion by the Hendry County commissioners all year, and they will be “drilling down” into it at more depth this month in hopes of setting some policies that will give their front-line staff more clout in getting blighted areas cleaned up.

Commissioner Karson Turner has been adamant for some time both that the board keep close tabs on what’s being done to rein in continual violations and that commissioners act to make it more costly for scofflaws to ignore enforcement actions by moving more quickly to foreclose on their properties. He contends that because the county has forgiven or slashed accumulated property liens in a few cases, code enforcement citations don’t carry much weight with some residents.

So at their last meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 25, Mr. Turner pushed the matter further when the board heard a report from County Attorney Mark Lapp about the mounting collection of liens, which number 184 from January 2014 through August 2018, on 81 separate properties in Hendry County. Mr. Lapp categorized them as being in two distinct groups: 13 tracts with liens totaling between $3,360 and $6,395 each, and 68 with liens totaling between $50 and $1,027; or, “lower-value liens” mostly for grass-mowing violations and “higher-value liens” for building demolitions and more extensive violations, often including mowing.

The attorney estimated that hard costs just to file foreclosures and take them through to judicial sale on the 81 cases would be almost $1 million, not even including his or a private attorney’s time to handle the cases.

He also said there are more, which are older than five years, but that the county would be unlikely to win foreclosures on them because of a five-year statute of limitations.

“So it seems like we ought to focus on the ones that are less than five years,” Mr. Lapp said.

“In my opinion,” he added, “it’s not worth the effort to do a foreclosure for lower dollar amounts like that. The higher dollar amount ones, there’s 13, and eight of those we hold tax certificates more than two years old, so to me, that’s a more efficient, less expensive way of getting ownership. The point of foreclosure is to get ownership, and then to sell and pay yourself back.”

“I fundamentally disagree with that,” Mr. Turner interrupted, and his voice rose in volume as he went on. “I think that’s a byproduct of the process, but my desire for this process to be enforced is so that we can give code enforcement teeth … and, more importantly, the constituents to understand that there’s teeth in a code enforcement violation, that lien process and all of that. I think that it better serves the county and we’ll … find more compliance.

“I have a number of questions,” he said, going on to explain to fellow commissioners that he believes “we should have a process that says there’s a time threshold” for foreclosure and, further, that the county should hire a private law firm to pursue those actions.

Turner calls process a ‘punt’

“The tax deed process is a punt, to me,” he said. “Blight affects everything, and the code enforcement process can be a tool to deal with blight. And we have — in my opinion; you all may disagree — we have more blight that is being developed than we do solid, middle-class homes. That’s a very doom-and-gloom statement, but that’s what I feel.”

Mr. Turner apologized for getting excited and said he wanted to return to the topic, but the board had several scheduled public hearings to take care of first. When commissioners came back to it, he had left the room. County Board Chairman Mitchell Wills asked, “Are we going to rehash that?” and Commissioner Michael Swindle replied, “Oh, let’s do” — joking as Mr. Turner returned to his seat, “Somebody just made a motion to stop all code enforcement!”

The room erupted with laughter. Then Mr. Lapp asked, “What are we doing on code enforcement? You haven’t given me any direction.”

“And look, I don’t want to keep kicking the can,” said Mr. Swindle. “I would love to give direction to Mr. Lapp and staff, or, set a time-certain date where we’re going to come together and bring everybody and Jesus into the room and let’s make something happen.

“I think Commissioner Turner has thumped it enough,” he continued, “to where we’re on board, we hear it, we see it, we’re ready to do something about it, and that iron is hot. It’s time.”

Mr. Turner asked whether they wanted to have a specific workshop on it. “I think we do,” said Commissioner Darrell Harris. “We need to do that,” Mr. Wills said. “Let’s talk about options,” Commissioner Swindle urged, saying they’ve covered a lot of background already.

The commissioners agreed to make the topic an agenda item for their next meeting, and to hear members of the public who want about it as well. That meeting is set for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9, at the Clewiston City Hall.

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