On Wednesday the City of Clearwater's Municipal Code Enforcement Board dealt with the assessed fine of $445,500 that was levied against the Church of Scientology for failing to follow its orders in 2006. The Church of Scientology was fined at the rate of $250 per day until a certificate of occupancy was granted. During the MCEB discussion, the city agreed to waive $32,000 of the fine because in fairness to the Church of Scientology the city needed over 4 months to review revised plans. During the course of construction the building codes had changed and this required a new plan review.
The Church of Scientology presented a case for reducing the fine to $45,250 by saying that it was noncompliant for only 309 days. Representatives said it should be liable for only $77,250 in fines, but less the $32,000 concession from the city. In fact the Church of Scientology was ready to write a check on the spot for $45,250 to consider the whole thing settled right then and there. The Church of Scientology also said that the Salt Lake Tabernacle took 40 years to build and the National Cathedral took 83 years to build. Looking at it like that, taking 12 years, 7 months, and 15 days to build a central spiritual house of worship by a church is pretty good.
So, who's at fault and what about the $413,500 fine sitting on the table? Unfortunately, the city has a precedent of reducing these kinds of fines. How it ever got to this amount without anyone in city management saying, "pay the bill," or even "pay part of the bill," is amazing. Usually when most places send statements or invoices there is a follow-up procedure that takes place. This is done when the statement sender follows-up with a courtesy collection call. If that doesn't work then, demand letters sent via certified mail usually get attention. Not to worry though it seems nothing like that was done in this case. The Internal Revenue Service and the Florida Department of Revenue are two governmental agencies that have really perfected the send statement, then follow-up with collection call model, then take appropriate action. Oddly, there are probably a million private sector companies that perfected this system also.
The building being discussed is just over three blocks from city hall and almost another three blocks away from the city's Municipal Services Building. Technically, for that matter it's close to the fire department and the police department too. So, in theory if you were going from one city building to another city building there is a pretty good chance you would either bump into the building or see it during your travels.
Now, you have to wonder what kind of internal controls are in place. For example, when the fine reached $50,000 didn't alarm bells go off? Wouldn't someone say, "hey boss this number looks kind of big, what else should we do?" After a year had passed, or two years, or heck, three years, ... surely someone would say, "hey supervisor, I keep sending these statements out but the amounts aren't being paid."
So what is going on? Does the city management not keep track of this? Is there a loophole in the municipal code that allows sky-high fines but pay as you please payment plans? What is the magic number before someone says "enough."
This issue was blogged on June 10th, "If You've Got The Time Do You Get The Fine" and a video in that blog says the city will press the Church of Scientology to pay this fine in full. In fact the reporter in the video said the Church of Scientology intends to pay.
The Church of Scientology was not a good neighbor in this instance. It could have been clearer that it was building a structure that needed more than the usual time to complete. Not communicating or sharing intentions is not the way to build a good partnership. Given the amount of time that this building took to complete, the Church of Scientology could demonstrate good intentions by at least paying $45,250, the amount it says it owes. If it wishes to contest the remaining amount it is well within its right to do so. That way it can say it paid obligations on what it thought it owed rather than what it was ordered to pay.
If the city fails to collect this amount then the citizens need to take a good hard look at the leadership, the management, and the ordinances that allowed this to happen. In the private sector a loss of this amount might be a cause for termination. This should never have been handled like this. There is another building in downtown Clearwater that seems to be taking a long time to finish, will this scenario be repeated? What is the plan?