HOLMES BEACH – When commissioners agreed to reduce his code enforcement board fine from $105,000 to approximately $24,000, property owner Joe Hieronimus said it was still too much.
"The fine is $105,000 and you’re looking at it as the starting point," Hieronimus told the board. "I see the $26 rental license fee as the starting point. That’s the disconnect."
The fine involves a rental property at 4605 Gulf Drive that Hieronimus and two partners purchased in 2001 as an investment. Hieronimus, who lives in Pennsylvania, and another partner Richard Santia, who lives in Georgia, allowed the third partner, George Ellin, to manage the property.
Ellin contracted with a rental company to rent it for a period of time, then moved his employees into it and assumed the costs. Due to a tenant dispute, the city learned that Ellin did not have a rental license.
He was brought before the code enforcement board in February 2006 and agreed to get a license, but did not. A second hearing in March 2006 resulted in a fine of $150 per day. When that wasn’t paid, the city placed a lien on the property.
Hieronimus said due to Ellin’s financial difficulties, he agreed to purchase Ellin’s one-third share in April 2006. He put it on the market, but could not sell it, then contacted a rental company, which rented it in September 2007.
Code Enforcement Officer Nancy Hall saw that the property was rented, checked and learned there was a new owner. In February of this year, she sent a letter to Hieronimus, who said he knew nothing about the code enforcement action, the fine or the lien until he received the letter.
"No one in their right mind would let a fine go to $105,000 for a $26 license fee," Hieronimus said. "I’ve been honest and open with you. I had no idea."
City Attorney Patricia Petruff said the city did everything correctly and pointed out, "The property appraiser keeps records of where the tax bill is sent. It’s only sent to one owner and they designated Mr. Ellin to get it. It is not the city’s duty to notify a new owner if there is a city issue."
She said commissioners could compromise the lien by reducing the fine or charging a flat amount. She said they also should consider the city’s costs.
"You showed poor judgment and misplaced trust with your partner," Commissioner John Monetti observed. "I don’t think the city has a spirit of imposing upon people who try to do the right thing. I believe you are speaking honestly to us."
However, Commissioner Pat Morton said it is not a city issue and that Ellin "threw you under the bus and now you’re faced with a $105,000 fine."
"I had no idea he threw me under the bus until I found the tire tracks on me," Hieronimus responded.
Commissioner David Zaccagino suggested reducing the fine from $150 per day to $30 per day, or a total of about $21,000.
"When the fine was imposed, the board was dealing with George and he upset them," Monetti said. "But it’s Joe that’s standing in front of us. What did he do wrong and to what degree does he get financially whacked for using poor judgment?"
Mayor Rich Bohnenberger said they should base their decision on whether Hieronimus was a willing partner in not paying the fine.
Commission Chair Sandy Haas-Martens took a consensus for a $20,000 fine plus the city’s costs and all the commissioners except Morton agreed. Haas-Martens said she was thinking of $30,000, but would compromise.
"The concept of code enforcement is to bring people into compliance, not to punish them" Petruff pointed out. "It does appear that the board was truly trying to get Mr. Ellin’s attention. Well, hey, that didn’t work.
"Since Mr. Hieronimus was made aware of the issue, he has been very cooperative and made every effort. I can’t fault the man for trying to do the right thing."
"The cost to the city is $3,300 and I look at anything over that as punitive damage," Hieronimus said. "You say you want $20,000 or $30,000 because you can, not because it’s right. Whether it’s $20,000 or $105,000, it’s extreme."
Commissioners said they would make their final decision at their meeting on April 22. Petruff said Hieronimus must decide how and when he would pay the fine before the next meeting.