Will Clearwater press Scientology to pay $450,000 fine in full?

St. Petersburg Times/June 10, 2011

Clearwater - For years the Church of Scientology's unfinished Flag Building, its biggest structure in the world, stood fenced off and frozen in time.

Trash and overgrown grass lined the seven-story empty shell as the church stalled its construction.

In 2006, the city of Clearwater got fed up and started levying a $250 daily fine. After the building finally passed all its inspections Monday, the meter stopped at an eye-popping $450,000, easily one of the biggest fines in the city's history.

But before paying up, church representatives will likely talk to a group few Clearwater residents ever see: the city's Code Enforcement Board, which has the power to cut the church's fine.

That leaves the fate of nearly half a million dollars that the city needs at the hands of an obscure, all-volunteer board that's more familiar with problems like neglected swimming pools and boats parked on lawns.

City leaders aren't excited about the prospect. They say the 12 years it took to finish the Flag Building, which fills an entire downtown block, was excessive and inexcusable.

"I'm not in favor of reducing the fine a dollar," said City Council member Paul Gibson. "We're not talking about someone who failed to mow their grass on schedule. We're talking about a large organization that failed to finish … year after year after year after year."

The money would help replenish a city budget that's millions of dollars in the red. But the council, which appoints residents to the code board, has no say in the decision.

The Code Enforcement Board has never dealt with a project or fine like this. Most people whose cases they decide are down on their luck or testing the rules. Most of the cases involve shabby homes. Their biggest case recently involved a woman with an Astroturf lawn.

When the board gets a request to cut a fine, it almost always agrees. Over the past two years, only two out of 14 requests were denied, board minutes show. Fines totaling $229,000 were trimmed by the board to $16,000. In most cases, code violators ended up paying about $1,000 for administrative costs.

The board of seven, serving three-year terms, includes an insurance claims adjuster, a civil engineer, a marketing company owner, a real estate lawyer and three retirees.

Most members were appointed last year, four years after the Flag Building fines began. Board chairman Michael Boutzoukas offered to volunteer in 2008 after talking with Vice Mayor George Cretekos at a church festival.

In contrast, the Church of Scientology has devoted more than a decade to what it calls its "Flag Mecca," open solely to Scientologists and their guests.

The building will house the church's counseling, or "auditing," services in more than 300 rooms on the top six floors. On the ground floor, a chapel will host weddings and newborn-naming ceremonies. A grand lobby will feature an exhibit on the church's beliefs.

Nicknamed the "Super Power" building, it will also host a highly classified Scientology program that promises to instill heightened senses in paying parishioners - the only such Super Power program in the world, according to the church.

Construction began in 1998, stopped in 1999, restarted in 2000 and stalled out in 2003. Grand opening dates came and went. The chain-link fence around the building's hollow shell cast a nasty edge on efforts to redevelop downtown.

The church took criticism but said its redesigns needed time. "We build for eternity," former spokesman Ben Shaw told the Times. "When we do that, we want it perfect."

A year after the fines began, Mayor Frank Hibbard and City Manager Bill Horne met with church leader David Miscavige at City Hall to urge him to finish the project. They recall that Miscavige promised to pay the fines when the building was finished, saying, "Money is not a problem."

Now, four years later, whether that promise will be kept remains to be seen.

The church has yet to apply to reduce the fine, but city planning director Michael Delk said church representatives told him they would like to ask for a fine reduction from the board in July or August.

Church spokeswoman Pat Harney said, "We are simply following the standard procedures to close out any remaining permit issues."

Most members of the Code Enforcement Board said they wouldn't speak about the case before their meeting, which is yet to be scheduled. But member Sheila Cole, who was serving on the board when the fine began, called her chances of voting for a cut "pretty unlikely."

"The city has already bent over backwards to make it possible for Scientology to finish their buildings," Cole said. "It's gone on too long to be completely forgiven."

Since 2000, the church has paid the city, county and state $2.2 million in permit, plan review, impact and other fees, city assistant planning director Gina Clayton said.

Harney said "it would not be appropriate" to give a final cost for construction, as the building was funded by parishioners' donations. When reminded of estimates that the building would cost $90 million, she said those "were not incorrect."

The Flag Building received its certificate of occupancy on Monday. Harney said the church will host a ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony there later this year.

Vice Mayor Cretekos knows how he would like this all to turn out.

"The church would show a great deal of respect to the city, that it is wanting to be a partner to the city, in light of the fact that it is purchasing property in the city, if they paid the fines in full," he said.

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