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City of Dunedin files motion to dismiss code enforcement lawsuit of homeowner who owes $30k in fines

Homeowner facing $30K in fines, foreclosure
Posted at 5:42 PM, Jul 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-22 18:19:49-04

DUNEDIN, Fla. — The City of Dunedin responded to a lawsuit on Monday that ABC Action News first reported on in May. The suit has since gained national attention and challenges what the non-profit Institute for Justice calls "exorbitant fines" on its citizens for code violations.

Homeowner faces $30K in fines, foreclosure after not mowing lawn

The city filed a motion to strike and a motion to dismiss the lawsuit the Institute for Justice filed on behalf of homeowner James Ficken. Ficken owes close to $30,000 in fines and faces possible foreclosure on his home after code enforcement cited him for overgrown grass. Labeled as a repeat offender, the city fined Ficken $500 a day.

Ficken told ABC Action News he returned home to Dunedin last summer to find the grass in his yard grew to more than 10 inches tall. Ficken said he was in South Carolina, helping take care of his late mother's estate. During that time, Ficken said the man who mowed his yard died unexpectedly.

Last month his attorney Ari Barjil, with the Institute for Justice, told I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern, "This is a really trivial violation, it's an astronomical amount of money for anybody, and the ultimate consequence, the foreclosure of somebody's home, is something we only see in really rare instances."

In a motion to strike, the city requested portions of the lawsuit be removed, sections said to "portray the city as a petty dictator" and allegations of the city attorney "touting the city's code enforcement process as a 'well-oiled' machine," along with other language said to cast the city "in a derogatory light."

In the motion to dismiss the complaint, the city said the daily fine of $500 for a repeat violation is allowed under state law, and therefore "is not excessive."

Last month, I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern found the city hired a crisis PR firm, on top of its full-time city spokesperson, to help respond to criticism it has faced. The 1-month contract cost taxpayers $25,000.

Dunedin hires crisis PR firm after lawsuit surrounding uncut grass gains national attention

The I-Team found that in the last five years, Dunedin code enforcement fines nearly tripled, to more than $1.1 million collected just last year.

In an email Monday, City Manager Jennifer Bramley told ABC Action News the City Commission and City staff have received “death threats and hundreds of threatening e-mails and phone calls from across the country” in regards to this issue.

“I have Sheriff’s Deputies stationed in City buildings because our employees do not feel safe,” said Bramley.

Friday, the city posted a breakdown on its website, defending its code enforcement practices point by point.

"The City of Dunedin is a community built on passionate and engaged residents and we continuously strive to provide the highest level of service. Our goal is to provide these services with transparency and honesty. As the City faces continued criticism for recent actions taken by code enforcement, we wanted to share more about the code, our policies and how we work with residents to achieve code compliance.

Our mission is to continue to foster a community partnership between the City government and its residents. We are dedicated to provide service that enhances life in Dunedin.

Learn More about Dunedin Code Enforcement

  1. Why is the City of Dunedin so aggressive in going after code violators?The City does not target code violations any more than is necessary to address neighborhood complaints and to retain the beauty and character that makes Dunedin such a wonderful community. We work with homeowners to attain compliance whenever possible, but unfortunately certain homeowners prove to be unwilling to take the steps necessary to meet code standards.
  2. Isn’t something wrong when uncut grass can lead to a resident losing their home?Large fines are imposed for code violations only in the most extreme cases, where homeowners repeatedly fail to bring their homes into compliance. Just a small percentage of those cases result in large fines, and in these cases the City continues to work with the homeowner to find a resolution that avoids foreclosure. Foreclosure is indeed an extreme step, used only in the most extreme cases.
  3. How does the City of Dunedin notify homeowners that there is a violation?Homeowners are provided numerous notifications throughout the code enforcement process. Homeowners are notified by certified mail to the property owner listed in the tax collector’s office, hand delivered and/or posting a notice at the property.
  4. Why have Dunedin’s collections from code fines increased so much over the past five years?During the recession a large number of homes were foreclosed upon by the banks, which resulted in numerous abandoned houses in the community. These properties were not maintained, and as a result they fell out of compliance and began to accumulate substantial fines. The banks, facing large inventories of these houses, were very gradually able to bring the homes into compliance, settle the code liens with municipalities, and put the properties back on the market. This process took years and generated above-average fines to be collected.
  5. What is the City projecting for the future regarding fine collections?This fiscal year, the City of Dunedin anticipates $400,000 in fine revenues – down significantly from last year’s $1.1 million – as the remaining bank owned properties are placed on the market.
  6. How long do homeowners typically have to fix a violation?Code enforcement officers use their discretion, based on the nature of the violation, to determine an initial compliance date. Extensions are given liberally to owners who are working to resolve violations.
  7. At what point does it go before the Code Enforcement Board?When the code enforcement officer’s compliance date is not met and the owner does not cooperate, the case moves forward to the Code Enforcement Board.
  8. When do fines occur?If the Code Enforcement Board finds that a code violation exists, the Board provides a second compliance date and sets a date for fines to begin if the new compliance date is not met.
  9. Who sets the amount of the fine?Fine amounts are determined by the Code Enforcement Board, an independent panel of Dunedin residents appointed by the City Commission.
  10. What is the role in this process, if any, of elected officials?City commissioners appoint the Code Enforcement Board members and must give formal approval to any fine or lien settlements between the property owner and the City. Otherwise, commissioners are not involved in the code enforcement process.
  11. Why have some fines for individuals reached such a high level?If an owner takes no action while the daily fine is accruing, the amount can grow considerably over time – in some cases, months and years.
  12. Can the City foreclose on your permanent (homesteaded) residence or home?No – Florida law specifically prohibits a municipality from foreclosing on a resident’s permanent home, as identified by the homestead status of the home.
  13. If foreclosure is filed on a non-homesteaded property (i.e. not the permanent home), what can the homeowner do?The homeowner may work to bring the home into compliance with code and make a settlement offer to the City. The City would always prefer to reach a settlement that allows a homeowner in compliance to retain the property, rather than move to final foreclosure.
  14. What steps do the City or the Board take to work with homeowners when a code violation occurs?

Code enforcement officers provide liberal extensions and delay taking cases to the Code Enforcement Board for any owner working to correct code violations. In many cases, code enforcement officers identify volunteer groups that can assist elderly or disabled homeowners in order to get violations corrected. The Code Enforcement Board, at its discretion, will grant fine reductions for identified hardships."

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