EAST LIVERPOOL - Landlords came out in force for Monday night's City Council meeting, opposing an ordinance that would raise annual rental license fees by $20 per unit, but the legislation passed on first reading while a legal opinion is sought by council.
The legislation was reviewed last Tuesday by council's economic development and licensing committee, which forwarded it for last night's meeting. The ordinance calls for raising the annual fee from $40 for 1-25 units to $60 for 1-50 units and from the current $30 for 26-plus units to $50 for 50-plus units.
This would generate a total of $84,000 annually, of which $42,000 would go to the Planning Department to fund two part-time inspectors, with $28,000 going to the general fund as it currently does and the remainder to the Planning Department for legal fees.
Landlord Jean Perkins said she had noted several properties for sale but balked at buying them when she saw they were located in the city, saying, "As responsible landlords, we don't want to deal with this."
Linda Ziegler, also a landlord, asked about getting financial information that justifies earmarking half the rental fee for the general fund and asked what steps the city has taken to determine if rental license fees have been paid for all those properties listed as rentals by the Better City LLC group, whose list she claims is longer than that of the Planning Department.
Ziegler said she found it distressing that the councilman pushing the legislation was taken to court by the Planning Department over the condition of his own property and lives in property owned by someone else, which she said means it is "technically" rented.
Annesley Road landlord Becky Burke complained that council is pushing costs for landlords higher and that, in turn, they have to increase the cost to their tenants, saying, "You don't feel sorry for us because we have money, you think, because we own buildings. This has to affect renters. There's no way it cannot."
James Casto of Pennsylvania Avenue, however, said, "If you're not making money on your rentals, maybe you shouldn't be in business," saying he strongly supports the license fee increase as a way to facilitate inspections.
Casto also supported the idea of making renters responsible for their own water bills instead of landlords, the same as they are responsible for their own electric, gas and cable bills, which he said would help attract better tenants.
Other landlords, such as James Salvatore and Brenda Damaso, complained that their tenants are leaving due to the city's failure to maintain the streets near their rentals, with Salvatore also saying Salem charges a $30 per unit license fee with inspections conducted annually with two part-time inspectors on the job.
"If they can do it in Salem (at that rate), there's no reason we can't do it here," Salvatore said.
Cathy Hyatt-Smith also supported the increase, saying she had worked more than 20 years in property management and said the city needs to hire a professional housing officer instead of two part-time inspectors.
She also suggested looking into grants and an intern program at the university.
Beverly Salvatore of Sprucevale Road opposed the increase, saying her husband recently spent more than $1,000 to repair one of their rentals when she can't even get a porch built on their own home.
"All of our houses are up for sale. I grew up in East Liverpool, and it's nothing but a giant slum," Salvatore said, offering to do rental inspections for half the price of what is being proposed for the housing inspectors' salaries.
Ohio Avenue resident Brian Kerr suggested putting part of the money generated from the rental license fee into a fund for demolition of dilapidated houses, rather than placing a levy on the November ballot for demolition.
When the legislation came up for a vote, Councilman Ray Perorazio said he took exception to Salvatore's comment about the city being a slum, saying many of the people who spoke have moved to Calcutta where they have the same problem.
However, Perorazio said he wanted an opinion from the law director on whether it is legal to earmark the rental fee income to the general fund.
Council voted 6-0, with Councilman Tom Cunningham absent, in favor of first reading, pending receipt of the legal opinion.