County may offer amnesty for code violations

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County Commissioners discussed the option of offering some form of lien amnesty for property owners who bring their property up to code.

According to the staff report, many of the cases handled by the Okeechobee County Code Enforcement Division result in compliance prior to the imposition of a fine by the Code Enforcement Special Magistrate. In other cases, the properties are brought into compliance after the fine is imposed, and the fine is subsequently paid in full.

There is, however, a group of properties on which liens have remained unpaid, some for many years. Even though these cases have gone through the system and there is no further action to be taken by the Code Enforcement Special Magistrate, County Code Enforcement staff internally refers to these properties as “open cases” because there are unpaid code liens. The open cases fall into two categories: for some the property is still in violation, and a daily fine continues to accrue; and for the others the code violation has been corrected, and the daily fine is no longer accruing; however, the fine amount which accrued prior to compliance remains unpaid.

As of March, 2018, there were approximately 69 liens on properties still in violation and 62 liens on properties that had been brought up to code, with millions of dollars in total unpaid liens. In each category, some properties are homestead and others are not. (The county cannot foreclose on homestead properties.)

Many of the properties with liens have a value of far less than the lien amount, and there is no likelihood that the county will receive payment of the full lien amount, per the staff report.

At the May 10 meeting, county attorney Laura McCall said a lot of other cities and counties in Florida have amnesty programs, “and they are all over the board.”

She said some waive all fees, others require a percentage of the lien.

“We have a number of liens on the list that vastly exceed the value of the property,” she added.

The proposal given to the board would require the property owner not only clean up the property for which amnesty is requested but also that all property owned by the amnesty applicant be up to code. The county attorney suggested options for reducing the liens.

The amnesty plans suggested would still require the property owner to pay a fee, but it could be reduced to a percentage of the value of the property, a percentage of the outstanding fee or a flat amount.

“The county is not trying to take people’s houses away from them,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. He said the penalty should be sufficient to make sure they keep the property cleaned up.

“The intent of this is to get the properties cleaned up,” said Commission Kelly Owens.
Commissioner David Hazellief said he would like some time to discuss the amnesty idea with his constituents. “We can get input from the public individually,” said Commissioner David Hazellief.

The commission came to a consensus to move forward with developing a code enforcement amnesty program. Chairman Terry Burroughs said between now and the next meeting, constituents can talk to the commissioners in regard to their opinions on the option.

A decision on an amnesty program will be finalized at a future meeting.

Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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