HOLMES BEACH – Caught in a classic Catch-22, property owner Joe Hieronimus asked commissioners for relief from a code fine that has reached $104,700.
"I became aware of this situation the first week of February 2008, when I received a letter from Code Enforcement Officer Nancy Hall," Hieronimus explained. "It took me by surprise. The fine has been occurring since March 3, 2006. I thought it was a mistake.
"I met with Nancy to get an overview of the situation and get the background and piece together the history. She recommended that I come here today and talk to you."
Hieronimus, who lives in Pennsylvania, said he and two other partners purchased the property at 4605 Gulf Drive in 2001 as an investment. One of the partners, George Ellin, was to manage the duplex and contracted with a rental company to rent it.
"We had limited success in renting it and in late 2003, George called and proposed that he move some of his employees in and assume all the costs. In 2003 through 2005, that happened.
"At the end 2005, George’s construction business took a turn for the worse and he got into a dispute with one of his employees, who was also staying in the duplex. At the end of 2005, he moved out."
Hieronimus said due to Ellin’s financial difficulties, he agreed to purchase Ellin’s third, which he did in April 2006. He fixed up the property and put it on the market, but could not sell it. After 18 months he contacted a rental company, which rented it in September 2007.
"All along, I was unaware of the code violation," he stressed. "Nancy said to come here and beg, so I’m begging. I’m not here to dispute the facts."
Hieronimus said he also is representing the other property owner, Richard Santia, who lives in Atlanta.
Board debates issue
"The city doesn’t have anything to do with it," Commissioner Pat Morton said. "Your problem is with George. He told the code board what he was going to do (get the rental license) and he didn’t do it."
"George threw you under the bus and sent you here to plead the case," Commissioner John Monetti agreed.
"I appreciate that position," Hieronimus replied. "I’m here on my own. "George is my friend and I took certain things for granted. I don’t want to disparage George.
"This has escalated to the point where I would have no choice but to turn the property over. At one time this was a $200-300 issue. Who in their right mind would let it go to $105,000?"
City Attorney Patricia Petruff said Hieronimus should have done a title search, which would have revealed that the city had a lien on the property. However, Hieronimus said he bought the property before the lien was filed.
She also questioned how the property got back in the rental market without a license, given its history. Hieronimus said Hall called the agent who said she didn’t need one.
"It seems to me that a $150 per day fine for lack of a rental license is pretty steep," Mayor Rich Bohnenberger observed.
"If you want to offer mercy, find out the rationale behind the fine," Petruff advised commissioners. "If you are inclined to reduce the fine, it needs to be an amount that does not harm the integrity of your code board system."
Hieronimus said the county has his address because he is paying the taxes and questioned why the city did not have his address. He said Hall sent all the notices to Ellin, which were all returned.
"If we would reduce it would you pay it?" Commissioner David Zaccagnino asked.
"I’d have to talk to Rick, but I’m assuming there’s going to be some pound of flesh to pay," Hieronimus responded.
Commissioners agreed to stop the fine the day Hieronimus talked to Hall, move the issue to the March 25 work session and find out why the code enforcement board levied the excessive fine. They also asked Hieronimus to get a letter from Santia authorizing him to speak on Santia’s behalf.