MARCO ISLAND — Right now is probably not the best time to be brought up in front of Marco Island’s Code Enforcement Board, if you are a property owner who has failed to make required repairs, or especially if you are a landlord who has allowed your tenants to get out of hand.
At their meeting Tuesday afternoon in City Council chambers, the CEB indicated that they are preparing to take a harder stance toward violators, and “put some teeth” into code enforcement. For years, in the wake of the economic downturn, which saw multiple foreclosures and distress sales of real estate, the board has been willing in most cases to mitigate or waive fines imposed on delinquent property owners, particularly if the owners made efforts to correct the deficiencies, or at least showed the courtesy of showing up at board meetings to explain their situation. But after disposing of a pair of enforcement cases, and electing a new chairman and vice chairman for the group, the CEB devoted the bulk of their meeting to a workshop on how to curb code violations.
As City Attorney Burt Saunders looked on, his associate Daphnie Ricobene led the board through a discussion of possible changes to city ordinances, to make the Code Enforcement Board “more efficient,” she said. “We want Marco Island to have a higher quality of life,” and characterized the proposed changes as a “comprehensive, collected effort to make everybody in the city happier.” Everyone, that is, except code violators.
Code enforcement fines can be up to $250 a day for residences, with multiple fines for multiple offenses, and even higher for commercial establishments, in addition to administrative fees and reimbursement of any hard costs the city incurs to take care of problems when a property owner does not. These fines can, and have, mount into hundreds of thousands of dollars on a property. But they have been routinely “mitigated” at the request of owners, their attorneys or bank representatives, who often argue that a massive fine will cause a pending sale to fall through.
“It’s kind of a joke to start out fining people $250 a day, and then mitigate it down to $10,” said CEB member Debra Shanahan.
Board members indicated Tuesday they had been looking for guidance from the City Council in how best to enforce the city’s zoning code, and they got some, from two City Council members sitting in the audience. Councilman Larry Sacher went first, saying “we could probably have a parade of people in here who would tell you about what are called ‘renters from hell.’ We’ve got to do something to stop this.” He cited one rental home that had been the subject of over 100 complaints.
Council chairman Joe Batte was even more emphatic. Jabbing his finger in the direction of the code compliance officers present at the meeting, he essentially read the riot act to city staff, saying “they need to get to work, be pro-active, and have better tools.
“That’s your job, and I’m here to make sure it gets done,” said Batte. “We need to move a little toward enforcement.” He urged CEB members to “get your thoughts to Daphnie and Burt, and City Council will give you guidance,” presumably in a more formal fashion than the extemporaneous remarks Tuesday.
Batte also expressed concern that Code Compliance Supervisor Liz Carr, who was on vacation, was not at the meeting.
“I’m very disappointed the supervisor is not here today. I’m sure there’s a good reason, but it still bothers me,” he said.
Board members agreed that landlords could, should and would be held accountable for the actions of their renters. Member Phil Kostelnik suggested that owners of rental property should be given a booklet with pertinent regulations to pass along to their tenants. “Maybe the rental agent should be responsible as well,” he added.
“We need more communication from residents,” said Ricobene. “Don’t wait until you’re fuming mad” to inform the city of violations.
The violations do not involve only rental property, said Batte. “We’ve talked 90 percent about rentals, but it’s not just about transients. This is about people who violate and ignore our laws.”
Dick Adams was elected by the CEB as their new chairman, his second time in the position, stepping up from vice chair. The vice chairman slot was filled by Kostelnik.
Things are going to change, said new CEB member Paul Kampmeyer. “I can’t come in with a box of Kleenes, and a tear in my eye, and get a $10 fine.”