Proactive Approach Paying off for Largo Code Officers

Division learning how to help homeless, spot unlicensed contractors

LARGO — About six months ago, Largo’s Code Enforcement Division rebranded itself as the Community Standards Division in an effort to highlight collaboration with property owners rather than confrontation.

While the transition is still a work in progress, the division’s manager, Tracey Schofield, said new training initiatives and a bit more patience are paying off.  

As evidence, Schofield, who has been with the city for about a year, pointed to a nearly empty docket during the May session of the city’s special magistrate.

“Some people would go, ‘Well that’s a bad thing. Why are you guys doing that?’ said Schofield, who served with the Pinellas Park Police Department for more than 20 years. “In my world, I think that’s a great thing. Just like when I was a police officer, I used to say put me out of business, please. What do you mean I didn’t arrest anyone for a week? That’s a good thing.”

Schofield continues to carry his law enforcement background into his work for Largo, introducing a series of training programs aimed at keeping his officers safe and helping the community.

The sessions have included methods to help the homeless or people with mental health problems, and how to recognize unlicensed contractors.

In February, the division hosted an eight-hour course on how to recognize and approach cases involving individuals experiencing an emotional crisis. The training, which was presented by the Largo Police Department, was also attended by members of the city’s Housing Division, Engineering Department, Building Division and the city of Pinellas Park’s Neighborhood Services Division.

“The reality is that we deal with mental health issues every day,” Schofield said. “It’s an unfortunate part of code enforcement, but a lot of the folks that the police department are dealing with for other reasons, we might deal with them on issues like hoarding.”

He said such people just don’t have the ability to take care of their property properly, so he and his department of as many as nine officers deal with the cases often.

“We’re just another resource for the community as far as making first contact with these folks and hopefully getting them their services,” he said.

Since they also deal with a lot of vacant and derelict properties where homeless set up camp, he started internal training this month on how to help them.

“My folks run into them (the homeless) on a daily basis,” he said. “And it’s not about running them off the property. It’s really about trying to find them the proper resources to help them get off the street.”

Some people don’t want help, however, but that doesn’t mean they won’t offer it to them.

“A lot of these folks have mental health issues,” he said. “A lot of them are veterans. So, if we help one person this year, if we help one veteran this year through this training that we’ve received, then we’re in a much better spot then we were a year ago.”

Keeping an eye on contractors

Community Standards also hopes new training will benefit property owners.

In March, the division hosted a course presented by the Pinellas County Contractors Licensing Department on how to identify and investigate unlicensed contractor cases in the city.

“Unfortunately, that’s another thing we run into a lot,” Schofield said. “There is just a lot of unlicensed contractor work going on in the city. There are certain ways to recognize that and there are certain tools in place that we have at our discretion if we want to use that.”

For instance, the division received a call about a month ago about a commercial building getting its driveway resurfaced and repaved.

After observing work being done, Schofield said he noticed some tell-tale signs of an unlicensed contractor, such as no markings on the vehicles and out-of-state tags.

“Most people who are doing legitimate work are advertising their business,” he said. “They got signs, they got bumper stickers, they got flyers, they got business cards. These folks didn’t have any of that.”

His suspicious were confirmed when he learned the contractor wasn’t licensed to work in Pinellas.

The city stopped work and referred it to the county’s Contractors Licensing Department, but Schofield said the property owner suffered the most, because he paid for a half-finished driveway and had to pay another contractor to complete the job correctly.

“So, the only person who suffered here was the business owner, because he thought he was getting off cheap,” Schofield said. “And by getting off cheap, he actually paid more.”

He said the problem has been rampant for a while, but, outside of the Sheriff’s Office, few had the understanding of the law to do much about it.

“It’s a much different statute than what we normally deal with — high grass or junk cars,” he said. “It’s very similar to any other criminal investigation. You collect your evidence, you interview witnesses, you interview the suspect and, hopefully, you can build a case and get these guys to stop doing that.”