County waives $264,500 fine: Code violation fine of $50 a day had been adding up since 2003

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County Commissioners Thursday voted to waive the code enforcement lien of more than a quarter of a million dollars that had accrued on a property valued around $4,000.

According to the staff report, an administrative fine of $50 per day, beginning Jan. 22, 2003, was assessed against Zollie Aldridge, for a code violation on a property at 181 N.E. 16th Ave. According to code enforcement records, the nature of the violation was: “derelict, abandoned structures, overgrowth, and trash and debris.”

The property was acquired by Elvis Barrett by quit claim deed on Dec. 19, 2016. According to the Code Enforcement Magistrate hearing records, Mr. Barrett said he was unaware of the existence of the county’s lien when he purchased the property. The magistrate noted the lien was recorded in the county’s public records.

Mr. Barrett brought the property into compliance with county code by removing the structures, cutting down the overgrowth and removing the debris. According to code enforcement, this work was accomplished by July 20, 2017.

Special Magistrate Deborah Hooker recommended reducing the fine from $264,500 to $1,000. At the Thursday meeting, County Attorney Laura McCall said Mr. Barrett did not file an objection to this recommendation. She said the records indicate he asked for the reduction to $1,000 and had received that reduction.

Commissioner Goodbread said Mr. Barrett bought the property and planned to fix it up and use it as rental housing. “The county said no, and he had to tear it down at his own expense,” he said.

Mrs. McCall noted that when property owners comply with code enforcement and bring the property into compliance, the county usually still charges a fine in order to recoup the staff costs involved in bringing the case to the magistrate.

“Typically the county has not just let it go,” she said.

“When I purchased the property it was really bad,” said Mr. Barrett. “When I went to building and zoning folks, they suggested that I ask for $1,000. They said ‘you’re going to have to pay something.’”

He said when he initially agreed to request the reduction to $1,000, “I had no idea the cleanup was going to cost so much.”

He said he did much of the labor himself but it was still costly to clean up the property and bring it up to county code.

“It was an eyesore and a health hazard and it’s been cleaned up and it looks nice,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread, who suggested the commission waive the fine. “I just thought it was a lot to ask Mr. Barrett to pay $1,000 more.”

Mr. Goodbread noted that since 2003, the county has already collected $66,000 in fines on that property which is valued at $4,000. That $66,000 was paid to the county by the property’s previous owner.

“In this case $66,000 has already been paid. We’ve already collected a lot of money over our cost,” said Commissioner David Hazellief.

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said that due to the unusual nature of the case, and the fact that the county had already collected $66,000 in fines, waiving the $1,000 fine would not create a precedent.

Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of waiving the fine, with Commissioner Kelly Owens casting the lone dissenting vote.

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