New programs for troubled neighborhoods, but not quite what was promised
Campaigning for mayor, Bob Buckhorn promised to strengthen the city's Public Nuisance Abatement Board and to instruct city attorneys to make referrals to the board.
This is an area where Buckhorn has taken some meaningful steps to address an underlying problem — a huge inventory of homes that have not been maintained, are in foreclosure, have been abandoned, or all of the above — even though he hasn't made big changes to the Nuisance Abatement Board itself.
"Statutorily, there's nothing I can do to strengthen the powers of the Nuisance Abatement Board,” Buckhorn conceded in an interview with PolitiFact Florida on Feb. 26, 2013.
The members of the Code Enforcement Board make up the members of the Nuisance Abatement Board. The board considers complaints from police or anyone else about properties where prostitution or illegal drug sales are taking place on the premises. If the board finds that the activity constitutes a public nuisance, it can levy fines and costs against the property. It also can order a landlord to include terms in the lease that allow for eviction if their tenants continue to break the law, can order property owners to meet with neighborhood associations and cooperate with the police and can require them to conduct an environmental survey of their property to eliminate the conditions for crime.
City Clerk's records show that the board has met more often in the past two years than it did in the previous two years. During Buckhorn's administration, it has considered one case, that of a motel on N. Nebraska Avenue, at a series of meetings. In addition to fining the husband and wife who own the motel, the board ordered them to notify police of illegal activity, check IDs and keep records of guests checking in, keep their video surveillance in good repair and make video records available to police and post signs saying the property was under video surveillance.
Assistant City Attorney Kristin Serafin said the board gives police a tool they can use behind the scenes in dealing with problem properties. When police identify a property that they suspect tolerates prostitution or drug-dealing, they often approach the owner about the problem. After hearing about the board's authority, some business owners have eliminated the problems on their premises without a case being brought.
Meanwhile, Buckhorn has launched a couple of initiatives that he said will have significant benefits for neighborhoods in need.
On Jan. 29, 2013, Buckhorn announced an initiative called the Nehemiah Project to tear down 51 abandoned homes in the Sulphur Springs area over a six-month period. Each house to be demolished had a string of code enforcement violations. All had been deemed uninhabitable. None were historic. Forty-five were in Sulphur Springs. Another six were north of Busch Boulevard.
The city committed to pay the $5,500 cost of each demolition and maintain the lots after the demolitions. Three Tampa code enforcement officers also were assigned full-time to Sulphur Springs. As part of the project, the city and Tampa Electric Co. installed 127 new street lights in the Sulphur Springs area.
Buckhorn said the Nehemiah Project goes directly to the "whole issue of quality of life and nuisance problems in neighborhoods” and is more important than strengthening the Nuisance Abatement Board itself.
Buckhorn said neighborhoods also should benefit from a merger announced on Feb. 6 of the city's Clean City and code enforcement operations into a Neighborhood Enhancement division. The merger came after an internal audit disclosed inefficiency, lax record-keeping and questionable spending in Tampa's Clean City program.
The new division was tasked with enforcing all non-criminal city ordinances, codes and regulations, maintaining medians and vacant lots and working to reduce litter, graffiti and illegal dumping. To run it, Buckhorn brought back retired Tampa police Maj. Sal Ruggiero and reorganized the combined staff into four teams — each responsible for a quadrant of Tampa — plus a fifth "rapid response team."
Buckhorn said he believed that steps like the Clean City-code enforcement merger were "actually more important than strengthening the board per se.”
"The part that I control more than I do the board is the code enforcement process,” Buckhorn said.
Buckhorn's campaign promise to strengthen the Nuisance Abatement Board has been subsumed into a broader effort to tear down dilapidated houses, re-organize code enforcement and put more accountability into Tampa's Clean City program. This is significant work, but it's not quite what Buckhorn talked about during the campaign. We rate Buckhorn's follow-through on this promise as a Compromise.
Interview with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Feb. 26, 2013
Interviews with Tampa assistant city attorney Kristin Serafin, March 21 and March 26, 2013
City of Tampa news release, "First Street Lights Installed in Sulphur Springs — Mayor Buckhorn's ‘Bright Lights, Safe Nights" Initiative Invests in Neighborhoods,” March 27, 2013, accessed March 27, 2013
Tampa Bay Times, "Tampa to demolish 51 vacant homes in Sulphur Springs," Jan. 29, 2013, accessed March 21, 2013
Tampa Bay Times, "After critical audit, Tampa shakes up underperforming Clean City team," Feb. 6, 2013, accessed March 21, 2013
Tampa, Fla. Code of Ordinances, Chapter 14, Article VIII
Appointments keep board in business
As a candidate, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he would strengthen the Nuisance Abatement Board and would instruct city attorneys to make regular referrals.
We didn't find any specific moves Buckhorn has made to strengthen the board, but in an interview with PolitiFact Florida, Buckhorn said he is encouraging the board in its work and monitoring its mission.
"Code is an important part of quality-of-life, and frequent and flagrant offenders need to be dealt with,” Buckhorn said. "We have tried to instill a certain urgency in the process.”
The board hears complaints about overgrowth, debris, junk vehicles, signs, and other violations of city code. It has the authority to levy fines and file liens against properties for noncompliance.
Buckhorn has made three appointments to the board since he took office, re-appointing Susan Long and appointing Herald Lord and Scott Strepinia.
Ordinarily, we wouldn't give much credit for simple appointments, but from 2004 to 2008 the board was dormant and positions went unfilled.
City officials told PolitiFact Florida that the board has heard one case within the past year and met approximately four times.
We don't see enough evidence to give a final rating to this promise. For now, we rate it In the Works.
Interview with Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Feb. 28, 2012
E-mail interview with Ali Glisson, March 28, 2012
Tampa Bay Times, Nuisance board back in business, March 10, 2008