Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Code Enforcement

In last Saturday’s edition of the Lake Wales News there was a front page article under the heading “Grand Hotel Headed for a Court Date.” The article made reference to City code violations and fines levied against this downtown property. It also noted that the City Attorney is taking the building’s owner to court to foreclose on the property.

These efforts are generally referred to as “code enforcement”. Many citizens are unfamiliar with the code enforcement process, and yet it is an essential and on-going City function - one that the City Commission, several years ago, directed staff to intensify.

The Code Enforcement Process
The City Commission has adopted a number of laws (also called ordinances) regulating the safety of buildings and the appearance of property. These laws are enforced by the City’s two code enforcement officers. The code enforcement officers are not police officers, but they do work out of the police department. They investigate and seek the property owner’s assistance to correct the following types of violations:
  • Substandard structures such as buildings that are dilapidated and appear to be abandoned

  • High grass and weeds

  • Trash and debris

  • Junk vehicles, and commercial vehicles parked in an area zoned residential

  • Zoning issues including illegal uses, such as a business operating without a permit within a residential neighborhood

  • Illegal signs and fences

  • Vending license violations

  • Occupational license violations

  • Illegal demolitions

  • Noise complaints

  • Animal complaints
If a property fails to meet the city regulations, a code enforcement officer contacts the owner to warn him or her of their property’s violation. The owner then has a period of time, usually 10 days, to bring the property into compliance. If the violations are not corrected within that period of time, the property owner is then given a notice to appear before the Code Enforcement Board.
As noted in this space last week, the Code Enforcement Board is one of 16 active boards that carry out city business. It is made up of seven members, appointed by the City Commission, with meetings scheduled the second Monday of every month at 5:00 pm in the City Commission chambers. During that meeting the Board members hear testimony and review evidence offered by both the code enforcement officers and the property owner. After reviewing all aspects of the case the Board members may find that the property either has, or does not have, a violation. Based on the circumstances of the case, the Board may offer the owner additional time to make the required corrections. The Board is also empowered to impose fines of up to $250 for each day of continued violation. Such is the case with the Grand Hotel.

The fine becomes a “lien” on the property - meaning that the City now has a claim against the title of the property. This claim has two very important features:
  • A lien against the property is likely to affect the title to the property and make it harder to sell. If the owner wishes to sell the property, the lien amount must be paid to the City. (Once the property is brought into compliance and the violation is removed, the owner may petition the Code Enforcement Board to reduce the lien.)

  • If the fine builds up to a large amount the City may wish to “foreclose” on the property. This means that the City could bring a lawsuit against the owner and obtain ownership of the property without payment to the owner. This is what the City is pursuing in the Grand Hotel case.
The City has another option in dealing with abandoned buildings: condemnation. Rather than a code enforcement action, condemnation is based on a determination by the City’s Building Official - that the building fails to meet the requirements of the building code. Buildings in this condition create a health, safety, and welfare concern. This action was used against the former Ridge Dry Cleaning plant on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, which after the 2004 hurricanes had sections of the metal roof become an airborne hazard. With proper notice to the owner the building was demolished, and the cost of demolition became a lien against the property.

Next week this column will explore code enforcement activity in the past few years, the professionals who carry out this important work, and the role of citizens in the process. Note: William Gindlesperger, Chief Code Enforcement Officer, and Albert C. Galloway, City Attorney, contributed to this article.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Spirit of Volunteerism

One of the many things that makes Lake Wales special is the spirit of volunteerism. There are multitudes of people who volunteer their time and energy to many organizations around the City. Agencies like the B Street Center, the Care Center, and the Senior Center could not operate at anywhere near their present level of service without volunteers.

This is also true in the world of recreation and sports, where adult coaches put in untold hours, year after year, to help kids learn good sportsmanship, discipline, and teamwork. The Lake Wales Little League, the Steelers and the Gators youth football programs, Jr. Magic basketball, the Ridge Soccer League, and the YMCA all offer coaching opportunities. I myself have only coached one season of soccer, but I still remember smiling when a fourth grader recognized me in the grocery store and said, “Hey mom, there’s my Coach!”

The City also has many volunteer opportunities, including service as a member of Voice, or by serving on a City advisory board. Voice stands for “Volunteer Observers Impacting Community Effort”, and Voice members carry out a variety of tasks to aid our police officers and stretch our law enforcement resources. For example, Voice volunteers can be seen at every parade, helping to direct traffic. They keep things running smoothly and enable us to have someone at every intersection. They also serve in this role when there are other special events, such as a bicycle race last summer. Voice volunteers are a tremendous asset to our police department.

Our City also has 16 active advisory boards. Citizens are appointed to these boards by the City Commission, and meetings are usually held once per month. Other conditions of membership vary with each board, such as the length of membership, and whether or not the member has to be a city resident. Some boards currently have vacancies, and applications for any open seat are available from the City Clerk’s office in the Municipal Administration Building.

The work of the Advisory Boards is very important, and their meetings are subject to the “sunshine law”. This means that the meetings are open to the public, with the meeting times posted in the Municipal Administration Building, and minutes are taken. Everyone is welcome to attend the meetings, especially if you are thinking about volunteering for one of the seats on an advisory board. The boards and their meetings are as follows (Note: all meetings are held in the Municipal Administration Building unless otherwise noted):
  • Airport Authority meets the first Monday of each month at 5:30 p.m.

  • Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meets the first Thursday of each month at 5:30 p.m.

  • Board of Zoning Adjustment and Appeals meets the third Thursday of each month at 5:00 p.m.

  • Code Enforcement Board meets the second Monday of each month at 5:00 p.m.

  • Depot Advisory Commission meets the last Monday of each month at 12:30 p.m. at the Depot Museum

  • Drug and Prostitution Related Nuisance Abatement Board meets when called

  • Historic Preservation Board meets when called – at least 4 times a year, at the Depot Museum

  • Housing Authority meets the 3rd Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Housing Authority Office

  • Lakes Advisory Committee meets the second Tuesday of each month at 5:30 p.m.

  • Library Board meets the 1st Monday of each month at 11:00 a.m. at the library

  • Parks and Community Appearance Advisory Board meets the 4th Monday at 5:30 p.m.

  • Planning and Zoning Board meets the 4th Tuesday at 5:00 p.m.

  • Recreation Commission meets the 3rd Monday at 12:00 p.m.

  • Police Officers’ Retirement Board meets when called, at least quarterly, at the Police Department

  • Firefighters’ Retirement Board meets when called, at least quarterly, at the Fire Department

  • General Employees’ Retirement Board meets when called, at least quarterly
Last but not least, the 5 City Commission members receive a nominal stipend for their service. Each Commissioner spends innumerable hours preparing for and attending City Commission meetings, receiving input from citizens, attending City related meetings, and studying City matters. It is often a thankless job, and yet it is crucial to the well-being of our town. Please thank the Commissioners for all that they do for us!

The number of programs with volunteers in our community is an indicator of the vitality of our community. We are blessed with a wonderful Community Spirit in Lake Wales.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Florida City Government Week

Mayor Alex Wheeler is scheduled to proclaim October 21-27 as "Florida City Government" week. This is a multi-faceted program of the Florida League of Cities. The purpose of the designation is to inform citizens of the wide variety of work that cities accomplish and to encourage citizens to take pride in their towns.

Perhaps the city employees with the highest profile are our police officers and firefighters. They risk their lives to respond to our calls for help, and their jobs require on-going training to learn and keep up with ever-changing laws and technological advancements. Then there are new commercial buildings, meaning new pre-fire plans must be done including what chemicals are present and where, and new subdivisions and streets must be planned and named.

Another group of employees called in on an emergency basis are the water and sewer utility workers. Honestly, most of us take what they do for granted: when you turn on your faucet, you expect water. It doesn’t occur to most people that perhaps someone may have had to stay up all night fixing a water main break, or having to fix a pump that moves raw sewage to the treatment plant... just as long as the water comes on in the morning and the toilet works. The preventative maintenance activities that the city utility workers also do in this regard are also very important.

Speaking of maintenance, other maintenance duties are performed by city workers in a variety of departments, from fixing street potholes, to cutting the grass in city parks and city cemeteries, and to cleaning and making repairs on city buildings, facilities, city vehicles, and the airport.

The city’s code enforcement officers also get calls: requests to investigate complaints about abandoned buildings, trash, and tall grass and weeds. This can be a very difficult job, seeking compliance from a recalcitrant or absentee property owner. Or it can involve chasing wild chickens or feral cats. But the successful result is quite satisfying; when an abandoned building is torn down, or a rundown building is fixed up, our town is a better place.

The are several locations where city employees encourage us to take a break. As mentioned in a previous column, the library employees present a superb place for all of us to read, use computers, or borrow DVD’s or CD’s. They welcome us to a place of respite from a hectic world, as do the employees of the Recreation Department. They staff the Kirkland Gym and provide a haven for basketball and weightlifting, and they work with other recreation league leaders to offer organized play... and the Depot Museum employees provide for our town a quiet glimpse of earlier days, in the former railroad depot.

And at City Hall there are many employees who do important work in a variety of departments –Finance, Utilities, Planning and Development, Human Resources, Public Services, Information Services, Economic Development, Main Street, Purchasing and Inventory, the City Clerk’s Office, and the City Manager’s Office– all taking care of the City’s business in their fields.

The City employees carrying out all these tasks very often work under adverse conditions and less than desirable circumstances. Their work is one of the many elements it takes to make our town a wonderful place, and it merits an expression of appreciation. Everyone has a chance to do just that during City Government Week. So go ahead and surprise the next city employees you see, and give them a sincere thank-you for what they do. Their recognition is well deserved.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Lake Wales Public Library

One of the many crown jewels in Lake Wales is our wonderful public library. Located a pleasant walk from our quaint downtown, and with a beautiful view of picturesque Crystal Lake, the Lake Wales Public Library exceeds all standards of exemplary service established by the State Library of Florida and the Florida Library Association.

In short, our library provides services that one would not expect for a town our size.

Our library is a member of the Polk County Library Cooperative, which is comprised of 18 independent municipal libraries and two special libraries. The Polk County Library Cooperative is open to all citizens, both residents and non-residents alike. A library membership in the Polk County Library Cooperative also entitles you to the free use of libraries in Orange, Lake, Osceola, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee, Hardee, Highlands, Citrus, DeSoto, Hernando, Pasco and Okeechobee counties.

The mission of the library is to provide informational, educational, and recreational services to the citizens, organizations and businesses of our community, striving to supply desired services as rapidly, efficiently, and courteously as possible, always recognizing that information is the foundation of an enlightened community. The history of our library, the many services, and what the future holds, are worth exploring.
The Lake Wales Public Library has served our community since 1919. The original community library was a project of the Lake Wales Woman’s Club. After outgrowing the few shelves in the clubhouse, the library moved to the Dixie Walesbilt Hotel (the Grand Hotel) downtown, and then moved to a room in City Hall.

In 1957 a group of citizens formed the Lake Wales Library Association/Friends of the Library to raise capital to build a public library. The first public library was erected at its present location in 1960, and was expanded in 1991. The Library Association also encouraged the City of Lake Wales to create a new city department: Library Services.
Library Services
Today the Lake Wales Public Library houses:
  • Over 73,000 books, available for up to six-week checkout.

  • Over 3,300 videotapes and DVD’s, available for two-week checkout.

  • Over 2,200 music CD’s, available for up to six-week checkout.

  • Over 2,300 audio books, available for up to six-week checkout.

  • A complete Spanish collection, including books, audio books, magazines, movies, children’s books and instructional aids for individuals learning English or Spanish as a second language.

  • Ten public access Internet stations. Half-hour time blocks are available with a library card.

  • A 15-minute e-mail station.

  • Wireless Internet access for library patrons who bring their own laptop – no charge. A library printer is available for a charge;

  • Telephone reference questions are answered at 678-4004, ext. 5.

  • A new service offered called B-Mail. B-Mail delivers books and library materials free of charge to the address on your library card! The Polk County Library Cooperative is one of only three library systems in Florida to offer this service. For more information call 679-4441.

  • The Schoenoff Meeting Room, located on the lower level, is one of the City’s public meeting rooms. It can accommodate 65 people. Some charges may apply.

  • Ye Olde Book Shoppe offers used books at reasonable prices. It is located just inside the entrance to the library and is open during regular library hours.
The library also has an active calendar of events including author presentations, book discussion groups, classes including French and yoga, and daily programs for children and teens.

All of these services are provided by a full and part time staff of 18 dedicated people, including five who hold a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science.
The Future
Long time librarian Tina Peak and the library staff continue to develop new programs and are always open to suggestions. Tina is also working with the library board to plan for the time when another expansion of the library will become necessary.

Additional library information is available on the City’s website at www.cityoflakewales.com/library or by calling 678-4004.

We are blessed to have such a wonderful resource in our town. It is truly one of our many crown jewels!