Local News

Commissioners forgive code enforcement liens

SEBRING Commissioners forgave more than $80,000 in liens against three property owners after they pleaded extenuating circumstances at Tuesday’s meeting. Clayton McNeil, 70 N. Dover Road, Avon Park, asked to settle with Highlands County for $450 after accumulating $17,283 in fines. McNeil said he returned from North Carolina in November and found stickers that said his house had been accumulating $50 per day in code enforcement fines since Aug. 28, 2009. “I am currently employed doing migratory work at the time of the lien I was out of state and did not know about the violations,” McNeil wrote in a letter to the commissioners. He took care of the violations by February, and wanted a reduction to $500. Florence Simon, the owner of a mobile home on Lot 12 at Lake Grassy Homesites, has been in a nursing home for more than three years. The property has been collecting $150 fines since April 4, 2011. The total was $44, 358.
Ronald Simon of Hollywood appeared and said his sister had been handling the paperwork for his mother, and he knew nothing about fines. “I am spending my own money to resolve this problem. I am asking that the lien be reduced to $600.” Jacquelyn Davis offered a $491 settlement to resolve a $23,331 lien on a property she purchased from Sue Ann Maines at 34 Basin St., Lorida. She paid five years of back taxes and believed that would clear the debt. When she tried to turn on electricity, however, Glades Electric said she would have to see the Code Enforcement office. Commissioner Don Elwell wasn’t willing to settle with McNeil or Simon for the county’s cost of enforcement, which in McNeil’s case was $125 for an administrative hearing fee and $225 for the cost of prosecution. “You didn’t really jump on it until February,” he told McNeil. “I think there ought to be a settlement for sure, but I don’t know we should settle for $500, I think we should settle for something more like $1,000. There is certainly some fault there, there is some culpability.” Commissioner Jim Brooks disagreed, saying the purpose of fines isn’t to take a homeowner’s land, it’s to clear the property of weeds, junk or whatever is causing neighbors to complain. “I concur with Commissioner Elwell,” Commissioner Ron Handley said. “We have to put more bite in this so they’re getting acted on in a timely matter.” Code enforcement officers should check to see that the violator is alive and well in the home, County Attorney Ross Macbeth interjected. “If all we do is get the order and record it, we haven’t cured the violation like we used to do. You’re seen three here that have not been handled that way. When they’re thumbing their noses at you and don’t do it and won’t let you on their property… these three are not that.” Neighbors have a responsibility, Homeowners Association Chairman Gene Reese said. “Paying the cost of the staff is not paying a fine. There is no incentive to correct the problem is there is no fine. Code Enforcement officer April Hartseil interjected that McNeil will pay $1,000 if given 30 days to pay in full. That’s a lenient amount, Reese and Elwell agreed. “We have a system, and it’s not working,” Chairman Jack Richie said. Code enforcement is levying fines and notifying homeowners, but they’re not paying attention. “Let’s see what we can do change code enforcement,” Elwell said. “They need to follow up after they’ve written the citation,” Commissioner Ron Handley said. None of the homeowners were particularly to blame, they agreed, nor was code enforcement. Richie wanted code enforcement to cure the problem – to hire the junk picked up or the weeds mown so that the huge daily fines would stop – but then to put a lien on the property. Commissioners decided to talk about raising the tourism tax from 2 percent to 3 percent in their night meeting, scheduled for 5 p.m. May 28. “That might be more convenient for the (Tourist Development) Council,” Richie said. “It’s not going to go away,” Brooks said. “We’ve got to address it.” In a second public hearing, commissioners changed five paragraphs of the land development regulations. One change allows Lake Placid to have more autonomy; another allows the engineering department to interpret landscape regulations. “We have to be careful we don’t totally gut our landscape requirements,” Brooks said. Dealers who display cars, boats and other items shouldn’t be required hide those goods behind a hedge, but they should be allowed to group hedges and trees. “I hate to see us go back to putting nothing along the highway,” Brooks said. “Not everything is cookie cutter out there,” Richie agreed. Ronald Hathaway III was recognized by Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton and the commissioners for saving the life of Anna Vanbeek. The 89-year-old woman was driving down Miller Road in eastern Highlands County when her car left the roadway and went into a ditch filled with water. “There is no way I would have made it without him,” Vanbeek told the sheriff’s office. “Please God, I don’t want to die now. He no more than got me out of my car than it was completely out of the water.” Hathaway disregarded his own well being, Chief Deputy Mark Schraeder said. Hathaway was given a standing ovation. Jeff Roth and Sherrie Schwab have opened a pet shelter at Safehouse so that women and children won’t have to leave behind animals. “There is a fear that the abuser will harm them as well,” Roth said. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com

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