Emphasis is on voluntary compliance because of the intensive process officers have to pursue to seek Special Magistrate hearings, County Commission learns
Sarasota County’s Code Enforcement officers are putting a significant focus on education and engagement with the public in an effort to resolve complaints without having to pursue the time-consuming Special Magistrate process, members of the Planning and Development Services Department told the County Commission this week.
A second goal is to improve response time when staff does receive complaints, Tom Polk, director of the department, told the commissioners on May 18.
The 11 Code Enforcement officers try to address complaints within 48 hours, Polk pointed out, and a study undertaken by his staff showed that they achieve that “roughly 80 percent [of the time].”
In February, the board asked for a thorough review of Code Enforcement officers’ responsibilities and actions, partly as a means of following up on the department’s 2015 request for two new technicians to assist the officers.
“We see from these numbers that there [are] some adjustments that need to be made,” Commissioner Christine Robinson told Polk, referring to charts staff had provided for the board. “I sincerely hope that if you request [more full-time employees] in the future,” she added, that he would be able to demonstrate the need for them through tracking of data.
A May 11 written report to the board from Polk and Sandra LeGay, the county’s Code Enforcement manager — which served as the basis for the May 18 discussion — explains that Code Enforcement officers deal with several ordinances, “involving a range of topics …” Among those are public nuisance issues, such as excessive growth of vegetation, accumulation of rubbish, and unlicensed and inoperable vehicles in neighborhoods; zoning regulations; sound pollution; signs in the county’s rights of way; and solid waste.
Polk told the board this week that one major means of public education Code Enforcement officers are pursuing is attendance at meetings of homeowners’ and neighborhood organizations, and community cleanups.
The majority of the complaints about County Code violations that the department receives originate with the public, the report points out; staff initiates the rest.
The May 11 report says officers’ approach to Code Enforcement has changed over the years. At times, it continues, officers have focused on issuing courtesy notices of violations before handing out Notices of Violation, in an effort to resolve violations without having to initiate the formal process that leads to a hearing before a Special Magistrate. “In other periods, there has been a focus on providing more formal [Notices of Violations], as the Courtesy Notice approach does not always resolve the issues.”
“In general,” the report notes, “using the [Affidavit of Violation] process makes the most sense when there is a continuing code violation on a property, rather than [in] cases [where violations] are sporadic, discontinuous, or intermittent or where a property owner is in the act of resolving the issue in a reasonable timeframe.”
The report also points out that the Affidavit of Violation (AOV) process “requires a substantial amount of investigative [work] and preparation … given the need for inspections, re-inspections, paperwork processing, hearings, etc. Further, the AOV process can be quite lengthy and costly, which can be frustrating to the citizens affected by an unresolved violation and the violation can remain throughout the … process.”
In a review of the staffing levels for the preparation of the county’s 2016 fiscal year budget, the report says, “it became evident that the 11 Code Enforcement Officers were spending approximately 48% of their daily work hours in the office. With such a significant amount of time spent on paperwork to file and complete enforcement cases, staff was limited for opportunities to engage the community, provide a neighborhood presence, and work with citizens to follow up on compliance matters.” Therefore, department staff asked the commission to permit the hiring of two new technicians — one each in North and South county — “as the most effective way to support the 11 officers.”
Those technicians’ duties include review and preparation of Notices of Violation and Affidavits of Violation, preparation of supporting documents for cases, determination of legal descriptions and property ownership, assistance with walk-in customers, receipt and forwarding of complaints, and compilation of information for public records requests, the report explains.
Those two new employees were hired in mid-November 2015, the report notes. “[T]hey have become increasingly more productive since January 2016,” it adds.
Explaining that the commission earlier this year also sought an analysis of overtime of Code Enforcement staff, the report points out that in 2012, the board provided guidance for the officers “to initiate overtime for late night, early morning, and weekend inspections. The purpose was to provide coverage on high profile issues, special projects, sound and light meter readings, and coverage for peer investigations that may only occur on [weekends] or [during] evening hours.”
The commission in 2012 included direction that staff members provide coverage for the entire county up to 20 hours per week, the report adds. That translated to about $21,000 in the department’s budget for the current fiscal year, the report says. As a result, the report continues, staff has conducted an average of 18 hours of overtime per week from October 2015 through March of this year. Overall, that effort “has been successful in addressing alleged violations that occur [in] early morning, after hours, and [on] weekends … The areas where Code Enforcement has had the most activity include Siesta Key [noise, parking and after-hours issues], Gulf Gate [noise and after-hours activities], and the [U.S.] 41 Corridor [noise and lighting issues],” the report says.
Staff “will continue to implement and monitor that program and make adjustments as needed to improve effectiveness,” the report adds.
Furthermore, the officers are rotating duty every 11 weeks so someone can work every weekend, conducting normal enforcement duties, the report notes. The plan is to continue that practice over the next six months, making any necessary adjustments to improve effectiveness “and ultimately [to] determine whether the benefits warrant continuation … as a standard practice.”
During the board discussion this week, Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out that two to three years ago, the county had “a lot of vacant homes,” which led to “tons and tons of complaints.” Since then, he continued, with Code Enforcement having stepped up its efforts, neighborhood groups have said staff is “too aggressive … overstepping the bounds.” He told Polk and Matt Osterhoudt, senior manager in Planning and Development Services, “Neighborhoods got to be careful about what they ask for.”
Commissioner Carolyn Mason said she wanted to take the opportunity “to thank all of our Code Enforcement officers. I know that in my neck of the county … that officer does an outstanding job of trying to educate the citizenry, and their job’s a hard one.”