Code Enforcers Keep At It

12/10/2012

Code Enforcers Keep At It
Written by Cynthia Roldan
Dec. 09 news-press.com


It wasn’t that long ago when code enforcement Manager Michael Titmuss could barely keep up with the number of cases being reported to his office.
At the height of the housing market crash between 2008 and 2009, Titmuss and his staffers at the Fort Myers Code Enforcement department dealt with an increasing number of homes that stood abandoned. The number of cases rose from 9,153 in 2007 to 13,100 in 2009 . And, like many other government departments across Southwest Florida, Titmuss’ staff was slashed by more than half; from 24 staff to 10.
Times have changed for the housing market, however. In November, Lee County foreclosures fell 18 percent to those of the previous year. Yet, Titmuss says that he is not ready to breathe a sigh of relief.
“I’m not sure if we’re really at that turning point yet,” Titmuss said. “Right now I feel like we’re just treading water.”
Titmuss is not alone in his sentiment.
Code enforcement officers in Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, and Lee and Collier counties all report that if they’ve seen a slight improvement, it’s not one they can celebrate just yet. They also warn against drawing conclusions by simply looking at the number of code enforcement cases.
“Our challenges are greater,” said Frank Cassidy, code enforcement manager for Cape Coral. “Those numbers do not express effectiveness. The only way you can express effectiveness is by driving around.”
Like Titmuss, Cassidy’s staff was cut; His office ended up with 21 officers, instead of the 37 he once had. He said his office was forced to abandon traditional code enforcement procedures. Instead of placing lien after lien against abandoned properties, code enforcement officers in Cape Coral worked with real estate brokers to ensure that homes could be sold.
Titmuss said his office also made changes to the traditional enforcement approach. Fort Myers recognized that sending people to the code board was not as effective as it used to be. Trying to motivate people to bring their homes into compliance through liens wasn’t working as well either.
That’s why Cape Coral enlisted the help of volunteers who mowed lots and maintained homes to prevent them from deteriorating. Instead of just issuing fines, the agency also created the property registration program to hold those who owned homes accountable.
“We did things to position ourselves so that we could encourage a really strong real estate market,” Cassidy said. “That’s been our goal to make sure that when the economy started around, we would be on the tip.”
Cassidy said he’s excited about Cape Coral’s future. Though his agency’s case workload has remained fairly consistent over the last three years, he believes that Cape Coral’s homes are looking a lot better.
The number of cases in Bonita Springs remains at about the same rate since they started keeping track in 2008, said Chris Campbell, city code enforcement manager. In 2008, the number of cases stood at 3,589. In 2012, the number took a slight dip to 3,122, after the city stopped opening multiple cases for properties with multiple units.
Despite the consistency in caseload, Campbell said he has noticed a change: More people seem more willing to bring properties into compliance.
“As far as getting compliance…the process seems to be getting faster,” Campbell said.
After the market crashed, it took longer for someone to step in and take care of neglected properties, he added. That has since changed, because properties are exchanging hands faster.
But Campbell — like Cassidy and Titmuss — was quick to point out that there’s no shortage of violations, nevertheless.
Fort Myers, for example, is dealing with more than 3,000 abandoned properties. Of that number, about 1,500 cases have been closed.
“We’ve made progress,” Titmuss said. “But to me, it doesn’t feel like we’ve actually turned the corner.”

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