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.