Landlords packed city council chambers Tuesday night to speak out against a proposed increase to the housing occupancy license fee, with the Rules & Ordinances Committee agreeing to rescind its proposal and regroup.
"We have to come up with something equitable," Committee Chair Councilman Rick Drummond said, not only for taxpayers who aren't landlords but for the landlords as well.
Two weeks ago, the committee proposed increasing the annual housing occupancy license fee from $15 to $40 for each dwelling unit up to 25 units in a structure and to $30 for each additional unit over the 25 units per structure. The idea was to use the money from the increase to hire a second part-time housing inspector to keep up with the department's workload, which not only includes inspecting rental units and answering complaints about rental units, but also complaints about private properties and nuisance calls dealing with items such as junk vehicles and garbage.
The ordinance also proposed to increase the penalty for nonpayment of the occupancy fee from $30 per unit to $50 per unit and to change some wording related to a requirement for annual inspections since the housing inspector isn't able to do that due to his workload.
The housing department currently consists of one part-time housing inspector, Dan Rice, who's been on his own since another part-time inspector was laid off in March 2010. He said 90 percent of his time is spent on paperwork and acknowledged that he answered every complaint filed last year, but wasn't able to do annual inspections of rental units or non-owner occupied housing units.
Drummond clarified that the inspector's job isn't about the aesthetics of properties, but of safety issues. Rice further explained that he can not only inspect rental units but any dwelling in the city of Salem. He said of the inspections he does, about 25 percent pass the first time and about 25 percent pass the second time, with some taking two or three visits to fix what he finds wrong.
When asked how much of his time was spent on complaints dealing with rentals and complaints dealing with private properties, he said it was about 50 percent, prompting some of the landlords to question why they were being expected to fund 100 percent of the cost. Drummond confirmed the majority of the department's budget comes from the housing occupancy fee.
"Why charge the landlords for service that provides for the health and safety for the whole community?" Geoff Goll asked.
Goll, who owns rental properties in the city, acknowledged the committee for taking a second look at the issue, but said asking one section of the community to pay the entire cost for the whole community was an error. He noted the amount of paperwork Rice mentioned and the need to have documentation for court and asked how often Rice has taken someone to court. Rice said once or twice a year.
Goll also said the city has been reporting an increase in income tax receipts over last year's totals and suggested the city look at that additional income to pay for a second inspector.
One man suggested raising the fee on reinspections. Pershing Street resident Jim Bonfert asked if a fee was charged for reinspections and Rice said there was not. Bonfert said it didn't seem fair and he wasn't the only landlord to express the idea that the fee increase wasn't fair. Rental unit owner David Halverstadt said the fee increase would end up hurting low-income people.
Other landlords said they would have to pass the cost onto their tenants and many of them don't have the money to cover the rent now. Landlord Greg Courtney said he and his brother own more than 100 units in the community and manage another 50 or more. He said they'll have to raise rents and questioned why they can't hold accountable the tenant who causes damage that then requires second or third inspections. When asked what he thought the city should do in order to get a second inspector, he said "I don't know what you can do, but you have to be fair and this is not. This is not the answer."
Rice said a second inspector would be able to spend 90 percent of the time on rental units. Another landlord said the amount of time Rice spends on paperwork seems out of line and he could do more inspections if he spent less time on the paperwork.
Drummond said they'll have another meeting to discuss the issue further and talk with the city administration about the finances. He said they want to put on a second inspector, but they have to find a way to fund it.
Mary Ann Greier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org