The story of Dunedin's tall grass turned viral. Then the mayor received threats in his house.

DUNEDIN – Last week was not nice for the city.

Jim Ficken, who accumulated nearly $ 30,000 in fines for code violations in 2018 for repeatedly overgrazing his lawn, sued Dunedin on May 7 after the city accepted foreclosure on his home. He and his attorneys argued that Dunedin's fines were excessive and were given almost without notice.

The national media published headlines such as "The city of Florida tries to steal the house of an old man on the uncut grbad". The story went viral on social networks. Dunedin employees received call after call and email after email from outraged readers and viewers. Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said she and her family were threatened with bodily harm in their home.

The city commissioners rejected the narrative of a city government that went crazy in a work session on Tuesday night, arguing that the nation has not heard the full story. Ficken, the city argued, was an absentee landlord who serially violated city codes.

Read more: Dunedin fined a man with $ 30,000 for high grbad. Now the city is running in his house.

Florida's cities are legally prohibited from foreclosing on property to collect fines for code violations, City Manager Jennifer Bramley told the City Commission. Ficken, a 69-year-old retiree, was not using the house at 1341 Lady Marion Lane as his primary residence, but as an investment house, the city argued.

In his lawsuit, Ficken admits that Dunedin's house is not his family residence. But Ari Bargil, the lead counsel for the Institute for Justice in the Ficken case, said that is simply an administrative matter. Ficken moved from his Clearwater farm to the Dunedin property in the spring of 2017, Bargil said.

Ficken's neighbor, Randall Johnson, said he doubted Ficken would move at that time. Johnson said he has complained to the city several times over the years about the condition of Ficken's house.

"The guy never lived there," Johnson said in an interview at his home. (Bargil said that his client lived in the house, he only kept it for himself).

Bramley argued that Ficken was not blinded, considering that the city considered him a repeat code violator in 2015, subjecting Ficken to fines of $ 500 per day for future violations. Records show that Ficken has been cited a total of 15 times by the city for code violations dating back to 2007.

"$ 500 per day is a standard in most cities in Florida for a repeat offender," Bramley told the City Commission. "It's based on the need to ensure that the offense is carried out quickly" (Bargil said that Ficken cut his grbad immediately after each of the Dunedin infractions he was aware of).

In his lawsuit, Ficken said the city gave him "no notice" that he would be fined $ 500 per day for his lawn grown as of July 2018. Bramley challenged that claim on Tuesday, alleging that a code enforcement official He visited Ficken around July 5 to warn him of heavy fines if he does not comply.

Bargil said that Ficken was out of town taking care of his deceased mother's property and shortly after July 5, so that such a meeting could not have happened.

Dunedin officials raised the other houses of Ficken. Bramley noted that Pinellas County records show that Ficken had a history of code violations at his home in Clearwater in the last decade.

The Clearwater farm and the Dunedin house at the center of the lawsuit are not Ficken's only properties, Bramley said. The records show that the various non-homesteaded properties of Ficken appear to be owned by different trusts with similar names, of which he is the sole beneficiary. The retiree has at least three houses in total.

Bargil said that Ficken's properties are not a source of income.

Finally, Ficken's lawsuit described the Dunedin Code Compliance Board as a body that has voraciously charged fines in recent years. From 2007 to 2018, the total fines collected in the city skyrocketed 3,807%, according to the demand.

"The city is insisting that (Ficken's case) is exceptional, and that's not true," Bargil said in an interview. The lawyer said he has heard from dozens of residents of Dunedin with horror stories of code enforcement.

Bramley said that the increase in the fines charged could be attributed to the increase in the homes of the banks after the great recession. The city had to attack those abandoned properties with heavy fines for banks to update them, argued the city manager. Dunedin expects the revenue from the code enforcement fines to decrease over the next two years.

Bramley concluded his comments before the City Commission by praising the efforts of city code enforcement officers. She praised the citizens who serve on the Code Compliance Board. He cited a city survey that showed that 73 percent of citizens said that Dunedin performs the correct amount or very little compliance with the codes.

"I encourage you to continue the good work you are doing," Bramley said.

Contact Kirby Wilson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets

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