Hendry County to establish code enforcement by magistrate

LABELLE — The Hendry County commissioners May 28 decided unanimously to switch over to a special magistrate process rather than the court system to handle its code enforcement burden.

County Administrator Jennifer Davis presented a detailed report from Margaret Emblidge, the county’s Planning & Community Development Department chief, and said, “We’re recommending that the county move to a special magistrate process for our code enforcement, not to say that the judge, (Hendry County Judge Darrell Hill), isn’t doing a fantastic job. We just want to be able to accommodate our volume at this point and if, at some point, the county’s looking fantastic … we may go back to the courts. This requires us going out for an RFP (request for proposals) for that position and some land code amendments.”

County Commissioner Karson Turner, who has been pushing for this to happen for many months, immediately spoke up to make a motion to approve both an RFP and having the attorney move forward on the land code amendments.

“I would also ask that the staff reach out to the City of Moore Haven, Glades County, the City of Clewiston and the City of LaBelle to educate them on the utmost possibilities on what their special magistrate process is and to let us know what their interest is in engaging in this process as well.”

Commissioner Emma Byrd said she’d spoken with Glades County officials “and they said they didn’t have one for the past five weeks.”

Ms. Davis said she’d also heard from them. “They were not pursuing a special magistrate and were not interested in this point.” She added that she had not contacted nor heard from Okeechobee County, Moore Haven, Clewiston or LaBelle.

Commissioner Darrell Harris asked whether the judge still would do his part, but Ms. Davis explained, “We will only be using the special magistrate going forward.”

“Why would you do that?” Mr. Harris asked. “Let both of them do it.” Ms. Davis sighed.

Board Chairman Mitchell Wills jumped in to say, “The special magistrate, we can get him anytime, and he’ll be able to expedite what we have now.”

Ms. Davis said she believed having both methods would cause more problems and confusion than efficiencies. Mr. Davis told the group that during a recent meeting in Gainesville he learned several other counties are doing exactly what Ms. Davis and Ms. Emblidge are recommending.

Commissioner Michael Swindle wanted to set up some sort of measurement system and to articulate their expectations. “What will be our markers of success by doing this? How are we going to measure that this extra expense and exercise will be valuable above what we are doing?”

Ms. Davis said code enforcement staff are “already seeing a ripple effect of compliance, but it’s about how code enforcement is operating as far as our approach to posting and sending letters of violation … (and) leaving door hangers on property with a bit of an issue and pamphlets with information on the process and 211 info, too, in case they need that … We’ve been able to more proactively be out in the field,” she finished.

“Staff has determined that pursing a special magistrate process could improve the efficiencies and speed up that process for addressing code violations,” Ms. Emblidge’s report stated (see related story on process).

The effects, predicted Commissioner Turner, would be that “enforcement and cleanup should occur a little faster, with less overhead realized by county. We have resources set aside. Then say (to the offending property owners), ‘We’re going to start the process of acquisition of your property if you don’t come into compliance.’

“It will not result in a quick net win for the county,” he said, “but I think you’re going to see neighborhoods potentially change, and less blight in the long term.”

As for budgeting, the report said: “The current budget for the county to conduct the mowing on vacant privately owned parcels is $12,500 and for demolitions is $75,000 on vacant, privately owned parcels. These dollars could be used for the special magistrate. … In addition to these costs, we would need to hire an administrative assistant to do the scheduling, hearing noticing and citation processing, etc., that the county court clerk currently does. To cover her office’s expenses, the clerk charges the county a 10% commission on all citations collected, estimated at $1,500 to $2,000 annually. Going to the special magistrate process, the county will be able to retain all fine money it collects. Monthly special magistrate hearings — $1,200 X 12 = $14,400. Administrative assistant — $45,000 +/- … leaving $28,100 for magistrate-ordered cleanups. Or if we have two hearings a month, $28,000, leaving $100 for magistrate-ordered cleanups.

“Staff would recommend budgeting for the special magistrate costs and, as citations and fines are paid, these dollars would be used to lower the amount paid from the general fund in the following fiscal year’s budgeting process, so as not to increase the budget.”

On another matter, Ms. Emblidge reported that the building official position was vacated by Mark Lynch on May 15. After staff advertised for a replacement, she reported, “Leslie ‘Lynn’ Jordan, one of our building inspectors, stated his interest … (He) has been with Hendry County for a little over a year and has become a certified standard building inspector and plans reviewer, and has proven to be a great asset to the county.” She said his experience as a building contractor and his certifications made him eligible to apply for a provisional Building Code Administrator license, which requires his promotion in order to apply for that status. Mr. Jordan “can act as our building official” once he applies, she said, and will have a year to complete all of his certifications and become certified.

Both moves were approved by 5-0 votes of the commissioners.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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