Fifth Avenue blues: City Hall is shaking a bit, but is it just from passing trucks?
At their June 7 regular meeting where all seats in the room were filled again, Mount Dora council’s major business was a review of code enforcement practices by the city’s police department, purchase of two new fire trucks and the rejection of wobbly deal with the county to surface a 3-block stretch of Fifth Avenue. Along the way there was talk about policies and procedures—including the city’s charter— that suggest that the present council is interested in reforms that affect the foundations of local government.
Mayor Girone opened the meeting by asking the council to use the moment of silence to reflect on former council member Michael Tedder’s passing and his contributions to the community.
In public comment, three upcoming events were noted:
– On Tuesday, June 14 (Flag Day), Patriot Cruise and salute will hold a ceremony at the war memorial at Baker and 5th will recognize veterans with particular focus on the estimated 36,000 Americans who lost their lives during the Korean War. (Hostilities in that conflict began in June 1950). A Korean War veteran will lay a wreath. All veterans – as well as the public – are encouraged to attend. The brief gathering will begin at 12:00.
– On Friday, June 24, Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker Daniel Karslake will be the highlight of LGBT Pride Month in Lake County. There will be a screening of his critically acclaimed documentary For the Bible Tells Me So and a discussion of the forthcoming sequel, For We Know Not What We Do. The event will include a wine reception with Mr. Karslake, music, a silent auction of art and memorabilia, and a raffle. A $10 donation includes a glass of wine and two raffle tickets. (For tickets, go to mountdoralive.com)
– On Saturday, June 25, the iU Band—a group of young musicians who share a message of love and friendship through music—will perform a fundraiser in the Mount Dora community building. The concert starts at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $10 and are also available at mountdoralive.com
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The city’s code enforcement policies were reviewed for council by Mount Dora Chief of Police John O’Grady, whose department has been responsible for enforcement since 2002 (prior to that, it had been handled by the Planning and Development and then the Fire Departments). In his presentation, O’Grady overviewed the staffing (one full time enforcement officer with support from two detectives) and outlined the types of codes commonly enforced (unsafe structures, improper parking, junk and debris, abandoned vehicles, overgrown vegetation, etc.).
Enforcement cases are civil (not criminal), and compliance by citizens is ‘substantially voluntary,’ meaning enforcement is driven by complaints, but notices of violation are also issued following canvassing of neighborhoods by code enforcement officers or other city employees. Responses to these complaints are handled variously; code enforcement works with property or business owners to immediately fix the problem, or they may work with these people to educate them the city’s building and construction codes. And there are complaints received by the police department which are not actual ‘code’ violations and cannot be addressed by the police.
Processing of violations follows a strict schedule, but as the process of remediation is an involved one from start to finish—owners are given many opportunities along the way to redress a situation before fines or liens are issued. It may take up to seven months to see the process through.
Several council members said they had constituents who complained to them repeatedly about code violations that had yet to be acted on. “I want to know how long you have to wait before you wield a hammer,” said Ed Rowlett (Third District).
Chief O’Grady responded that while the department works in earnest to resolve code complaints, perception and reality are not always the same. Some situations simply aren’t reported, and others were deemed not to be violations at all. “Ugly is not a code violation,” he added.
Not all the council members seemed aware of what the code specifies. Ms. Tillett complained about weeds and grass in parkway areas (between sidewalk and the street), wondering why the city didn’t do a better job of keeping these up. Chief O’Grady responded that while parkways belong to the city, it is the owner’s responsibility to properly landscape these areas, and renters are just as responsible.
Tillett also took issue with the word “discretion” in code enforcement, calling it “a vacuous approach.” She wondering if city attorney Groot should determine whether the codes could be tightened up, leaving less wriggle room for violators. “We want to keep our property values high,” she said. “We don’t want our values lowered because someone isn’t keeping up their property.”
O’Grady said he understood, and was receptive to suggestions, but was skeptical about sweeping changes. “I’ve been here for three and a half years and I don’t see that it’s (the code enforcement process) broken.” He added that while making sure that Mount Dora’s neighborhoods are kept up, there are communities around the city with very specific restrictions that address what residents can and can’t do with their properties. “We don’t want to be a homeowners’ association,” he said. “If we’re out there scrutinizing, we’re picking a fight.”
Cal Rolfson (Second District) was somewhat mystified why council was having a discussion on police code enforcement in the first place. “I don’t see a problem with them exercising discretionary powers.” He did add that regular show-and-tells like this one would be good for council “as an education in the complexities of running a city … It would be great to get an overview from other departments as well.”
Mark Slaby (at-large) again took up the banner he has carried in previous council meetings for directing code enforcement away from its present complaint-driven process. “I have to believe that for all the people who called to complain, there was a larger number of people who didn’t call. There is a demand for more code enforcement than there is. We have to have enough people to do that job so that citizens’ calls represents only ten percent of the load … We aren’t getting all the violations.” He then asked O’Grady, “if you could spend money to make it all look nice,” how much more would he need.
O’Grady didn’t bite, saying that he would ask for more staffing when there was an increase in demonstrated need. “Mount Dora isn’t the size city that needs a separate code enforcement unit.”
Mr. Slaby also wondered about the level of code enforcement for federal, state and city-owned buildings around Mount Dora.
Ms. Tillett suggested hiring a temporary code enforcement officer “for one to two years” to handle the “backlog” of cases, and O’Grady replied that he would go back and look to see if such a need existed.
Interim city manager Leinbach suggested that if council had significant issues with present code enforcement practices, that they might address it during their upcoming goal setting meeting where they could “see this as one of many priorities and determine what the balance is.”
The informational session ended with no action taken by council.
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A resolution that set a method for assessing Fire Assessment fees on properties was discussed. The city is in the first year of a 3-year fire assessment fee program to help pay for capital expenditures on equipment (as well as repairs and maintenance of them). Homeowners will pay $50 a year for the assessment, with non-residential property owners paying a rate based on square footage. The city will collect about $450,000 in fire assessment fees for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
Though in general agreement with the assessment amounts, several council members took issue with various aspects of the accounting. Mr. Slaby felt that assessment fees hide the true cost of government and preferred instead that the general fund be tapped. Ms. Tillett didn’t like that assessments like this could go against schools and churches, although the city’s current policy does not allow that. Mr. Rowlett didn’t like that funds from the assessment fee are planned to pay off two new fire trucks (pending council approval) when money for those purchases had been earmarked from the city’s discretionary sales tax. Mr. Leinbach explained that there are many city projects that also tap out of that fund, so that money isn’t going to waste. Still, Rowlett cast the lone dissenting vote when council approved the resolution. A public hearing on the assessment will be held on July 5.
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Council took up next the recommendation to purchase two fire trucks that are aging out of service. Deputy Fire Chief Tim Griner addressed council. One of the trucks (E-35) is 18 years old, has been slated for replacement since 2008, and costs more than $20,000 in annual repair costs to keep in service. The second truck (E-34) is newer but aging out and cost more than $10,000 last year to maintain. When one of these trucks are out of service, the city has to use its 70-ft tower truck instead, an extremely expensive vehicle that is not an efficient alternative for fire truck operations. With a replacement cost of about $485,000 each, Griner supported a proposal to purchase both trucks through a 3-year lease-purchase agreement with a 2.49% lease rate is below the expected 3% annual price increase for the vehicles. By replacing both trucks now, E-34 could be kept as a reserve vehicle (and lengthening the expected life of the tower truck) and due to different use needs (one of the trucks is located at different station that has fewer calls), the city won’t be looking at having to replace both seven years down the road.
Mr. Slaby gushed glowing praise about the professional quality of the proposal submitted by the fire department, saying it anticipated and answered all of his questions. Mr. Rowlett asked if some of the discretionary sales tax fund could be used to drive town the purchase. (Mr. Leinbach: we’ll be looking at replacing that ladder truck eventually, so let’s save that reserve.) Mr. Girone wondered how two trucks had now gotten into the discussion. (Mr. Griner: the first truck has been waiting for replacement since 2008, and by bundling it in the deal with a second truck we’ll be needing to replace not long from now, we get a better deal.)
Council ended up approving the purchase 7-0. It will take up to a year to get the new fire trucks configured for delivery.
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In short order, council approved: A resolution for the 2016 municipal election; an easement request from Leesburg to install new fiber optic line to Fire Station #35 (squirrels have chewed through the old line); and an application by Anthony Sabatini to serve on the Library Advisory Board.
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The most controversial order of business of the night was a staff recommendation to approve an agreement between Mount Dora and Lake County to resurface Fifth Avenue from Alexander to Tremain Streets, splitting the cost of the work (about $26,000 paid by each party). At the completion of that work the county, which currently owns that stretch of road, will turn ownership over to Mount Dora with the understanding that the city becomes responsible for all future work. Mr. Leinbach in his recommendation memo said that he had never encountered conditions like these in his municipal career, but had been told by the county that this was common in their agreements.
To minimize the impact on downtown, work would start soon — completing this summer — and would be done in a way that would keep one lane open, eliminating the need to re-route traffic. The city had also hoped to get the county agree to doing the work at night to minimize parking impacts, but were told the county’s crews only work by day.
In his opening remarks on the project, supporting the recommendation, Mayor Girone said, “we can’t get into an infrastructure project right now. This is a Band-Aid but a good Band-Aid.” He said that when big trucks lumber toward the intersection of Fifth and Donnelly and hit “potholes,” City Hall shakes, adding that this abuse would eventually affect the building.
While everyone on council agreed to the desperate need for improvements along Fifth Avenue, no one else voiced support for the interlocal agreement, saying the city was taking on so much responsibility while only getting a surface patch – and larger, unknown financial liability in the future.
Marie Rich (at-large) wondered if the funds could be saved for streetscape improvements coming with phase 4 and 5 of the downtown construction project. (Girone: we aren’t financially ready for that, and we told downtown businesses there would be a moratorium on any future interruptions.)
Mr. Rolfson pointed out that the agreement made no mention of road improvements, and asked if any boring or testing of the road’s condition had been done yet. “What if there are problems? This raises more questions than answers.” He called it “a sweetheart deal for the county” because all future problems would be Mount Dora’s responsibility.
Public works director John Peters was brought to the podium for his input. As it turns out, Peters was only invited to attend one meeting in the process. (Mr. Girone and Mr. Leinbach apparently served as principals to the negotiations.) Asked if any previous engineering had been done on the road. Peters replied that when the recent streetscaping project extended into the intersection of Alexander and Fifth, they saw little base under the old pavement. “It sits on dirt.”
Rolfson: “Wouldn’t it be appropriate to do that sort of assessment before signing that agreement?” Peters: “I would.” Rolfson: “I am not delighted that we are negotiating this deal without your involvement so that we were protected.”
Mr. Leinbach said he had tried on several occasions “to get a better deal” but the present one was the best he could manage, adding that if the work is going to get done this summer, the agreement will need to be signed soon.
Mr. Rowlett said the city should just pay the entire $50,000 for the paving job but leave ownership to the county.
Ms. Tillett said the city should instead focus on projects like the Innovation District and Highland Street improvements and address this with the streetscape project in another five years.
Mr. Peters said earlier that afternoon he had walked up from the intersection of Fifth and Donnelly headed east and noticed a storm drain that was crumbling, indicating that the city may have to deal with a major stormwater failure there. (The city owns the utilities under Fifth Avenue and is responsible for their maintenance.)
Peters added that turning the road improvement back to the county is problematic because the county has a 26-year backlog of road projects. The county’s strategy, he said, is to allocate money for cities to take over their road projects in order to reduce their responsibility. He suggested that the next agreement look at the entire stretch of Fifth Avenue from Alexander to Highland.
Mr. Rolfson suggested that council move to decline to sign the agreement and asked the mayor, city manager and city engineer (Peters) work on a better deal.
Mark Crail (Fourth district) wondered what it would cost to put up signs along Fifth Avenue saying in effect that this road is being taken care of by Lake County, adding “your penny sales tax at work,” which got a good laugh from the room.
In the end, council approved Mr. Rolfson’s motion. Mr. Leinbach said he would form a committee to begin working on a new deal while keeping in mind present time restraints.
While he accepted responsibility for coming to council with a less-than-satisfactory deal with the county, Mr. Leinbach may be finding himself between a rock and a hard place. Apparently the deal was spearheaded by Mayor Girone and proceeded without input from the city’s public works director. As interim city manager, Mr. Leinbach’s job is temporary, just keeping whatever status quo there is these days intact enough for the permanent city manager to address.
More worrisome may be the continued marginalizing and suspicion of professional city staffers within their area of expertise. Despite repeated praises by council and mayor of the “great job” city employees are performing, it is becoming routine to either challenge the decision-making of those staffers or attempt to remove them from deliberations altogether.
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In his city manager’s update, Mr. Leinbach said that 56 applications for the permanent city manager position had been received and that the hiring consultant would be making recommendations on best candidates at council’s July 5 meeting.
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During council comment Ms. Rich remembered former councilman Michael Tedder’s contributions, and Mr. Rolfson thanked city staff for being “superb beyond measure.”
Mr. Crail praised fire department Chief Kerkhoff in resolving a complaint about a very slow response by Mount Dora Fire to an emergency call. Kerkhoff was able to determine that 911 calls from residents using Summit Broadband were getting diverted to Ocala, which, upon finding out that Mount Dora was calling, were re-routing the calls to Tavares.
As is becoming usual, comments from several council members gives an indication of direction they seem to be bringing in from the sidelines.
Mr. Slaby mentioned “emails that have been in circulation”—apparently unsolicited advice generated by city attorney Groot,—specifically one suggesting that the city’s charter should be changed to include the city clerk’s responsibilities. There was some discussion about whether a city charter review committee would need to be empaneled to discuss this and then make a recommendation (they do not). Mr. Crail said that if the last charter review committee saw no need to act on this, he couldn’t see the purpose in doing so now, but council voted 4-3 to pursue it anyway. If the change is approved by council, drafted for the ballot and approved by voters in November, it will likely make not only the city attorney and the city manager report directly to the seven member board – but the city clerk also, would likely then report to council.
Mr. Slaby also requested a review of purchasing procedures be put on a future agenda. According to Mr. Groot, the city’s current policies will expire in 2016, so the city will have to either re-adapt or re-write them; as code enforcement and the city’s charter had already been at question, it may be assumed that these policies are in for an overhaul as well.
Slaby also pointed out that in his reading of the charter, the city only has one spokesperson–the mayor. He cited a recent article critical of growth in Mount Dora and said that instead of the Mayor commenting for the piece, two council members had been tapped. He said the city was doing a bang-up job selling itself as more business-friendly than before and that the Planning and Zoning committee was reinventing itself as a concierge service. “It’s a great message that we need to publicize,” he said – one which the city’s mayor should deliver.
In her comments, Ms. Tillett agreed that city manager and staff—what she called “the best brains in the house”—should get together to review recommendations made by Mr. Groot to “change policy documents and the charter,” in some cases “to make them function better” and in others “questioned,” as asking if the city requires property appraisals for properties they are acquiring. After staff evaluation of these, a presentation should be made to council with their recommendations.
She also asked if council’s seating could be rearranged in some simple way so everyone could see each other better.
Mr. Girone also praised staff for their professionalism in “the way they treat council and each other.” He said he was optimistic about the future.
Council adjourned a little after 9 p.m., and City Hall emptied out into the lush heat of Mount Dora’s summer night. Traffic on Fifth Avenue was muted, but if you paid attention you could hear the bang-rattle of axles as vehicles at the crossroads of downtown.
David Cohea, Writer (firstname.lastname@example.org)