CODE ENFORCEMENT BLUES
Green Cove Springs views Ida McDaniel as a scofflaw. She sees herself as a working-class woman just trying to get by
Ida McDaniel carries a lot of weight on her shoulders, as evidenced by the three bulging disks in her back, her companions as she labors through a typical grueling day.
McDaniel works two jobs, and claims to sleep just a couple hours a night. Her days often begin at 2:30 a.m. and end invariably after dark. Her workload would exhaust many people — but combine that with other obligations, such as helping her son with his kids, and it's easy to see how McDaniel might forget to check her mail.
"Sometimes the mailbox will be bulging," she says. "You go out to that mailbox right now, and I'll bet you it's full."
McDaniel hasn't been good about checking her mail for years, and this recently presented a problem for the Green Cove Springs homeowner. In 2011, McDaniel had her brother begin work to turn her home's garage into a spare room so she'd have a place to put her pit bull when she went to work. "You can't tie him up in the yard," she explains. "He'd be barking at kids and everyone."
That kind of remodeling is a common practice in Green Cove Springs, but also an illegal one since 2004, when the city passed an ordinance prohibiting such renovations. The objection was to cars parked on streets or front lawns. The city cited McDaniel for violating the city code on March 29, 2011. The charge: enclosing a garage without a permit. "I got a $50 fine, paid it, and thought that was the end of it," she says.
McDaniel was wrong. That was only the beginning.
McDaniel recently attempted to refinance her home through HARP, allowing for an interest rate reduction that would give her the savings she needs to complete renovation projects on her 30-year-old, $45,000 home. (There's black mold on the warped front door and a central air unit that needs replacement, for starters). That's when McDaniel found out about the lien on her home, imposed by the city, which prevented her from refinancing her mortgage.
There's nothing special about McDaniel's house: a concrete structure, with fake stone work on the front of the house; inside, there's carpet and vinyl flooring. Cheap construction — a starter home adjacent a boarded-up house with a swastika and all manner of vulgarities spray-painted on it.
That scatological house next door had a room with French doors where the garage once was. "They did that work in 2009, after that law was passed," she says. The city, she believes, practices selective enforcement. "If I were white, they might not have done it."
McDaniel says she received only one notification from the city on this code enforcement issue, but the fines kept mounting — $25 per day.
By March 18, 2014, when she asked the City Council to lift the lien, she was on the hook for $4,261.17, including the $861 the city spent trying to collect from her. The two members who saw her point didn't have the juice to carry the argument. Those with the juice weren't inclined toward leniency. Councilmember Pam Lewis, a mental health counselor who attends Hibernia Baptist Church with Mayor Mitch Timberlake, led the charge.
"I think code enforcement is really, really important," said Lewis, who lives in a home valued at about a half-million dollars, according to tax records. She told McDaniel that she has a demonstrated "history of not doing what you and your brother said that you would do." Lewis went on to ask "how upside-down she was in her mortgage," and wondered if she had incentive to fulfill any compromise.
Timberlake, meanwhile, laid into McDaniel for not bothering to look into this issue for three years — until she needed the lien lifted. "We've taken a very strong position as a city to enforce our codes," he said. The city "is not a benevolent fund," and thus should not provide relief that could set a "dangerous precedent."
For her part, McDaniel said she didn't know about the lien or the thousands of dollars she owed, though she admitted she knew she was in noncompliance. Registered letters sent to her home went undelivered, she points out. "The city showed no compassion," she says. "They saw the letters were returned. Why didn't the city just call me or come on by?"
On a 3-2 vote, the City Council approved a compromise: To have the lien dropped, McDaniel has to pay $118 a month for two years. McDaniel is grudgingly paying that fine.
"Two thousand dollars for what?" she asks. "My garage was hurting no one. It's not like I killed someone. I was just trying to make my property look better."
The city denies that it made an example of McDaniel. "If you would look at the record, we've been even-handed," Timberlake says. "We've done a great deal to try to help her. There's been a significant effort by the city to reach her when this was still a minor issue." He also rejected the idea that this penalty was more significant for McDaniel than it might be to someone with a higher income.
McDaniel disagrees. "I'm struggling with bills, and they want thousands on top of that," she says.
To comply with city code, McDaniel reconverted the room into a garage. That said, this isn't a garage in a meaningful sense. No car is stored in there — instead, the space is filled with detritus like parts of pool tables and empty gas cans, signs of a woman too worn out to do anything but shuffle from work to bed.
"I don't think they had compassion for me, that the mayor had compassion," McDaniel says. "To them, I was just a number. A $4,000 number."