Code enforcements issue were front and center at the Tuesday, Dec. 6 meeting of the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council when the council met with representatives from SAFEbuilt, the town’s contractor for building and code enforcement services.
While council members generally agreed that code enforcement remains a problem in the community, there was not a consensus about how to fix the issues.
Even before SAFEbuilt’s presentation, the council almost ended its year-old agreement with the firm over a disagreement regarding easement wording in building department paperwork. After first voting to not renew the contract, the council backtracked and approved a one-year extension with direction to town staff to remove an easement request that has appeared in some paperwork.
SAFEbuilt representative Maria Pineda, the account manager, noted that the easement language was not from her firm.
“The service we provide for the building department is reviews within the building,” she said. “Public works deals with easements. We don’t have a say on that.”
Pineda was joined by Bernard Pita, who serves as code compliance director in Loxahatchee Groves, to give the council an update, three months after a previous meeting where the council also expressed concerns.
“We have made a lot of tweaks and adjustments,” Pineda said. “I am happy to report that there has been significant progress.”
Pita said that he and his team have weekly meetings with the town manager and town attorney. He has since reorganized code enforcement in the community and brought new people on board to get the work done. This includes hiring a part-time administrative support person.
Pita added that there is a magistrate once a week in the town to address priorities, such as illegal tree removal. They will also be introducing a complaint affidavit.
“A lot of residents don’t understand what it is that code enforcement can do,” he said, adding that according to Florida Statues, the enforcement officers must actually observe the code violation, and a picture or video submitted by someone is not enough to take action.
Pita suggested a code workshop with the community to explain how the system works, adding that now that he has more support staff, he is expecting things to get easier.
Pineda said that there must be an adequate tracking mechanism in place to track violations as they come in. “What we are trying to achieve is to start a robust code program with code enforcement ordinances that are going to be effective for the town,” she said.
Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia, however, was critical of the work that has been done so far.
“We are renewing your contract after a year, and we still do not have adequate code enforcement,” she said. “I don’t think the people of this town need a workshop. I think you need a workshop. The people of this town know what code is supposed to do. They are just not seeing it done.”
Maniglia asked the firm to bring in an experienced code enforcement officer with expertise in agricultural communities. She was particularly concerned with violations that she has seen in the Okeechobee Blvd. area.
“All you have to do is drive down Okeechobee. It is in plain sight, and it is open to the public. But you are out measuring grass,” Maniglia said. “People should be able to live a peaceful life without having a truck stop next to them.”
Councilwoman Marge Herzog asked about the possibility of weekend coverage.
“I’m not sure if that is going to be us or the town,” Pita said.
He added that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office can be brought in to help with major code violations in progress, such as someone clear-cutting their property.
Councilwoman Marianne Miles warned against overly aggressive code enforcement.
“I am not a fan of code enforcement,” she said. “I believe in environmental and health and safety issues. But pitting neighbor against neighbor because they don’t like what they’re doing on the other side of the fence — that’s not proper code enforcement.”
She also warned against selective code enforcement, noting that to pinpoint Okeechobee Blvd. would be selective code enforcement. “Unless it is a health and safety or environmental issue, we should not be looking for problems,” Miles said. “I’m not for clear cutting, but I am also not in favor of spending money on the sheriff to get them out there.”
Mayor Robert Shorr wanted to make sure that code enforcement does not take on too many extra expenses. “You need to work within your budget and do the best you can,” he said.
When Maniglia pressed for the hiring of a veteran code enforcement officer, Pita noted that hiring nowadays is a challenge across all industries.
“It is kind of hard to hire in any discipline,” he said, noting that the code job is for part-time work. “There are not many applicants for that type of work.”
The company agreed to provide the council with updates at least once a quarter.