by Terry Rogers
On Monday, January 22, Milford City Council approved a program to bring all rental property inspections up-to-date to meet a code that was passed in 2008 after several months of public hearings and council meetings to iron out the details of the plan. In addition to hiring an outside inspection agency to inspect all rental properties in the City over the next two years, Council authorized the City Manager to begin the process of hiring a second code enforcer for the City.
“This is a culmination of items we have discussed several times over the past several months,” City Planner, Rob Pierce, said. “We tried to put something together based on council feedback. Staff recommends using the rental inspection company to perform all rental inspections over two years. We will use the county line to divide the inspections into two groups. At the end of two years, we will transition into a four-year cycle based on ward boundaries. I will prepare a predictable schedule for landlords of when inspections will be performed. The two-year contract is an expense that can be paid using excess building permit revenues for FY 2018 and is estimated to cost $131,200.”
Mr. Pierce also explained that hiring an additional code enforcer would cost the City $75,000 in salary and benefits. He recommended reviewing the expense during the FY 2017 budget process and, if there was sufficient funding, to hire a second code enforcer at that time. If Council decided to hire an additional official during FY 2018, the cost would be approximately $6,300 per month with a starting date of around May 1. During discussions, Councilman Jamie Burk questioned the checklist that would be used as part of the inspection process, asking if there had been any consideration to creating a point system such as one described by Kathy Stetson, a former code official who spoke at a public hearing earlier in the year.
“We met with Ms. Stetson to review the checklist she provided for the town where she used to work,” Mr. Pierce explained. “There were some things in there I felt made it more complicated than it needed to be. For example, they would score a broken window as one point. If that was the only infraction, they turned a blind eye and moved on. That’s something we feel you should make someone fix, like a shattered window, or flaking paint or an abandoned vehicle in the yard. Those were all one-point infractions. We could do a hybrid, but I think it complicates things. Our list is safety and health related.”
Councilman Burk felt that safety issues should be the most important part of the rental inspection program. He did not feel a missing screen should fail a property and that a falling down shed should not have anything to do with what is happening inside the home. Councilwoman Katrina Wilson pointed out that a falling down shed could be considered a safety hazard if there are children in the home. Mr. Pierce explained that the exterior issues were already being addressed as the code enforcement staff rode down the street as they had no way of knowing if a property was rented or owner-occupied. He also explained that unless is it is major safety issue, no one would be forced to leave the home, but the landlord would be given 30, 60 or 90 days to correct the problem.
Councilwoman Lisa Peel questioned whether the City was targeting landlords and tenants over property owners. City Solicitor David Rutt explained that there were different obligations between a landlord and an owner-occupied property. A landlord has obligations under the Landlord-Tenant Code to make sure tenants have a safe, livable housing unit. The inspection program adopted by the City ensures that tenants living there have a habitable house. He explained that if a property owner wanted to live in substandard housing, that was their option, but the City could not enter the home and conduct inspections as they could a rented property.
“If I am not mistaken, after hours of conversation, we left off with a consensus that we would hire a contractor for, I cannot recall if it was one year or two years, but that we would go with the contractor and hire a full-time person,” Councilwoman Katrina Wilson said. “That would provide two full-time code enforcers and they would be able to take over after a certain time. I think we were all in agreement with that, so there is no sense in rehashing this whole thing if we were there and that was where we were stopped.” Councilman Burk agreed that he felt Council had agreed to start the hiring process while using the contractor to get caught up on the rental inspection program. He also said that he still had concerns about failing a property for a minor infraction.
City Manager Eric Norenberg said that the public and Council have been clear that they do not want tenants forced from homes due to minor violations. “Our intent is not to fail when that would force a tenant and family out into the streets,” Mr. Norenberg said. “We don’t want to disrupt people’s lives, but we want to be sure they are living in safe conditions. I definitely agree with Councilman Burk that there are safety issues that should fail, but others that are aesthetic we can work out over time without someone being pushed out of their home. If we find an inconsistency, we can address it, but we intend to be as consistent as we possibly can.”
The measure passed with a vote of 4 to 2 with Councilmen Chris Mergner and Councilman Owen Brooks voting against it.
“I don’t agree with outsourcing this,” Councilman Mergner said. “It is just too vague. I think there is going to be a big gap in communication between the outsourcing company and our internal staff here. The landlords are making a living doing what they are doing, we have a lot of people involved. I am not comfortable sitting here and thinking this is going to work. Then, the checklist, there are gaps in the checklist. Also, how many times a third-party inspector would need to go out and get approval. I think this will just make overall work for the City. I don’t approve of that. I do approve trying to do this in-house. I think it is important that folks here in Milford have housing that is safe, I just don’t think outsourcing is appropriate. I think we need more in-house inspectors.” Councilman Brooks also felt the program should be conducted by City staff and felt the City caused the problem in 2008 by taking fees from landlords to hire an inspector and then not hiring the person they said they would hire.
Councilwoman Peel and Councilman Burk, who both approved the measure, said that they were happy that steps were being taken to hire someone in-house as soon as possible, but that they wanted to be sure there was a set procedure and that everyone was on the same page about what was expected of landlords.
“I am very worried about the checklist,” Councilman Burk said. “I think we really need a set procedure, not just adapt down the road. I would also like to get feedback from property owners so when they start getting inspections we can adapt if we need to do so. We need to have a good procedure. I prefer to see it done in-house, 100 percent, and I think that is the goal. But, I do think we need to get caught up.” Councilwoman Katrina Wilson and Councilman Archie Campbell also voted to approve the program.
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