Lake Worth’s code enforcement image still taking a beating

This past year, Aino Lautsio, a Lake Worth homeowner for nearly 30 years, became the poster child for everything that is wrong with the city’s embattled code compliance division.

On May 9, Lautsio, who takes meticulous care of the two-bedroom home she owns on Bryn Mawr Drive, was issued a yellow courtesy notice because much of her grass died in the winter, leaving a patch of unsightly sand.

“I respect what code enforcement does, but I never thought I would be a violator,” a visibly upset Lautsio told city commissioners at a special work session this past year to discuss ways to fix the division. “I think we need to look at our priorities.”

At another special session Tuesday at City Hall on the same topic, Mayor Pam Triolo referenced Lautsio’s encounter.

“That’s not who we want to be (as a division),” Triolo said.

It’s the worst-kept secret in Lake Worth that the city’s code division suffers from an image problem and that it has been dogged for years by residents and city officials who tell horror stories about it.

“Code enforcement has been an issue for as long as I’ve been here,” said City Manager Michael Bornstein, hired in 2012. “And many years before that. A lot of good things have happened, but that’s not good enough and we all recognize that.”

Commissioner Omari Hardy said no one has a good experience with the division.

“Everyone has something to complain about,” he said.

Mark Woods, the city’s code compliance manager the past three years recently resigned, taking a position in Boynton Beach as the city’s director of community standards.

He told The Palm Beach Post in February that while it was a challenge working in the city, the division had made “great strides” during his tenure.

Code compliance, charged with improving neighborhoods by enforcing building, zoning and housing codes, has been under fire since former City Manager Susan Stanton gutted the division in 2012, saying it wasn’t a priority. A year later, Kenneth Oakes, the city’s former internal auditor, in a special report criticized the division for poor attendance, falsification of inspection results and having inexperienced workers.

The division was in “complete and utter disarray” when William Waters, the city’s community sustainability director, was hired in January 2011.

“When 20 percent of the city is in foreclosure, abandoned or is being neglected it will take a while to turn it around,” Waters said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We are economically challenged. Code is an issue in every community and it’s more pervasive in Lake Worth.”

Code compliance also suffers from a high turnover rate, with workers leaving for better opportunities, performance issues or because they’re simply burned out, Waters said.

“Only three people have been in their positions for more than a year,” he noted. “It’s very difficult to move forward progressively and proactively when you’re spending a lot of time training people.”

Vice Mayor Scott Maxwell offered several suggestions on how to repair the division.

He said the division needs to perform more community outreach.

Lautsio, who wasn’t at the session, told The Palm Beach Post in a telephone interview that would have helped her.

“It would have been helpful to have a face-to-face conversation with a code enforcement officer who could have explained the basis of any perceived problem instead of leaving a violation notice on my door with unreasonable deadlines and the threat of penalties,” she said.

Information packets with a list of resources should be handed out to those who have been cited to help them through the process, Maxwell added.

A class that could be held quarterly or semi-annually on how homeowners can better maintain their property or deal with a troubled tenant could also be beneficial, he said.

Maxwell said the city should be more aggressive in staying ahead of those who flip properties and who continually “beat the system.” Lake Worth should also go after a property owner’s assets — car, boat, bank accounts — or shame them, like Maxwell said is done in Milwaukee by putting their name and contact information on a public sign for all to see on a derelict property.

“There’s a lot of talk about tools and what’s in our tool box,” Maxwell said. “Let’s identify all the tools that are available to us and lay them out there.”

Hardy said Lake Worth should investigate rotating code enforcement officers, something he said is done in West Palm Beach.

Lori Milano, the city’s newly hired assistant director of operations for the community sustainability department, said it’s important to do that, there is a fear that an officer will get burned out if he or she is working in a rough neighborhood.

“Some neighborhoods can be challenging,” said Milano, who has more than 20 years of code experience while working in Fort Lauderdale. “The only problem (with rotation) is that you’re trying to establish relationships and once they get to know you, you’re rotated out.”

Commissioner Herman Robinson said the division needs to do better.

“I see violations written up and nothing is being done. Abandoned cars are still out there,” he said. “Training is important, but the results are important.”

Understaffed for many years, Waters said the division has a full compliment of officers — seven regular officers and two compliance officers. The division has a total of 16 workers, up from six in 2011, Waters said.

Triolo said the city has been through it all with the division.

“We still have a long way to go,” she said.

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