Nearly $11 million in fines imposed for property code violations in Hallandale Beach in the past five years have been excused by city managers without the city commission’s review or approval, according to city records.
The city collected only a fraction of the total.
Breaks worth tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, were handed out to individual property owners, developers, businesses, banks and investment companies.
“There needs to be accountability. There needs to be transparency, especially on those not elected,” said former Miami City Attorney George Knox, a professor of law at Florida International University. “There should be some review to avoid the appearance of favoritism.”
Last month, a report by the Broward’s Inspector General’s Office was harshly critical of top Hallandale Beach administrators it said had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in public funds related to its Community Redevelopment Agency.
Hallandale property owners may appeal fines to the city manager. The managers have lowered or erased fines under a policy begun in 2004 under then-City Manager Mike Good. The policy gave them the authority to slash fines 95 percent for homesteaded property and 90 percent for non-homestead property. In hardship cases, fines could be cleared completely or owners charged only the city’s costs.
The question of whether the city manager should have unbridled authority to reduce code violation fines split the city commission, which voted 3-2 in February to affirm that authority by incorporating the administrative policy into the city code and adding clarifying language.
“No one should have that spending authority,” said Commissioner William “Bill” Julian, who noted commissioners have not been informed of reductions in property fines. “I want to be part of the process. We were elected to oversee.”
Commissioner Michele Lazarow, who joined Julian in voting no, said she favored city commission approval of all fine reductions “over $50,000.”
Mayor Joy Cooper and Commissioner Anthony Sanders did not respond to calls for comment. Vice Mayor Alexander Lewy could not be reached. The trio passed the measure to strengthen the city manager’s authority on fine reductions.
From 2008 through 2012, assessed fines totaled $11.7 million, with the city only collecting only about $751,345, or six percent, according to city documents. The fines were drastically reduced by Good; his successor, Mark Antonio; and current city manager Renee Crichton Miller.
Records show there were 276 fine reduction cases during that period, with 75 cases for fines above $50,000. The smaller cases typically involved work done by homeowners without permits and ailing or elderly homeowners who could not afford to keep up their property.
As BrowardBulldog.org reported two weeks ago, the largest fine reduction occurred last month when the city commission voted to wipe out $453,000 in fines against longtime Miami developer Tibor Hollo.
Professor Knox said he was not surprised that the fines reached as high as they did and the small percentage amount the city collected was what could be expected. “In this context [cities] collect a penny or two on the dollar,” he said.
Knox called the fines, which can escalate on a daily basis, “a brutish method” to coerce property owners to clear up violations that is nevertheless “lawful and constitutional.”
Knox, however, said that is a mistake to put “too much authority in the hands of the manager…without a rendering back of accountability.” The manager should be required to provide regular reports to the commission explaining the rationale for such fine reductions, he said.
With Commissioners Julian and Lazarow urging a change in the process, the commission decided to ask City Manager Miller to come back with a report on how other cities handle the reduction of fines for property code violations.
Miller cautioned that requiring commission approval to reduce any fine by more than $50,000 would slow the process of dealing with code violations and fines, and said the commission find itself “flooded” with cases involving small property owners, she said.
“This is not about power and authority,” Miller said. “It’s not about the manager’s authority; it’s about what makes sense.”
The matter would not have surfaced had the Hollo group accepted the 90% fine reduction — to $45,300 – the city manager could grant. But Hollo wanted the fine reduced to zero, something only the commission could do.
The Hollo group bought the 3.5-acre property along N. Federal Highway, next to the Mardi Gras Casino, two years ago. A 250-room hotel, residential and retail complex called “Bourbon Street” is planned. The code violations and fines existed before the purchase.
The developer’s representatives have said there was an understanding with former City Manager Mark Antonio that if their company corrected the code violations and cleared debris from the property the city would drop the fines completely. There was no formal agreement, however.
The Hollo group has a commitment from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to receive $25,000 to help it clean up the site.
Ultimately, the commission approved a deal in which the Hollo group agreed to pay the city’s costs of $4,600.