Councilman proposes new fee for landlord law
MOUNT CARMEL - Borough Councilman Joseph Lapotsky knows he might be opening a can of worms by introducing an ordinance that would charge landlords a fee per rental unit, but he said he's prepared for the criticism.
With the current ordinance, landlords in Mount Carmel are already required to pay an annual $100 licensing fee, and are paying $40 for the first inspection of a rental house and $20 for each inspection after that. Owners of rental apartments pay $20 for the first inspection of an apartment and $15 for each inspection after that. The proposed fee would be in addition to the current set-up.
Mount Carmel Code Enforcement Officer Robin Williams said he spends too much time dealing with problem landlords and defending the borough's landlord ordinance in court when he could be doing inspections for landlords who follow the law.
Furthermore, noted Lapotsky, some of the properties are still in bad shape.
"We have to address this issue. It's a matter of a few unscrupulous individuals bringing this town to its knees with some of these properties," he said. "I'm not out to penalize the good guys, but until someone gives me a better course of action, I'll stand by my gut."
Lapotsky said he hasn't determined what additional fee per unit would be appropriate, but he doesn't consider it fair to charge a landlord with one rental the same as a landlord with multiple properties.
Locally, Shamokin and Coal Township each charge a registration fee of $25 per unit. Coal Township also charges an annual $25 for each inspection and Kulpmont charges an annual $100 registration fee for each landlord and imposes a $50 per occupancy inspection fee and a $25 fee for each subsequent inspection. Ralpho Township has no fees for landlords, but they do require landlords to report tenants.
Williams reported there were at least 565 rental units out of 5,000 properties and 150 landlords in the borough, but it's difficult to keep track since they are constantly fluctuating.
As of Nov. 28, the borough has collected $7,000 in landlord registration fees and $4,700 in occupancy permits for 2012, but landlords have until Dec. 31 to pay these fees, said borough manager Edward Cuff III.
Imposing another fee for borough landlords would be expensive for some with multiple properties, Williams said.
"I'd have to see it before I would have an opinion on it, but it would increase the amount of revenue for Mount Carmel," he said.
He said the current ordinance, which was passed March 26, 2008, is a strong one and protects not only tenants from bad landlords, but also landlords from bad tenants.
The current ordinance spells out landlord responsibilities, including having all tenants register with the borough and identifying who lives in each rental property. It also dictates that all rental property owners who do not live within a 30-mile radius must have a local agent available to act on their behalf regarding any property or tenant issues.
Occupants must use either a driver's license, or other form of identification, and a paid occupational tax bill to receive a registration certificate that must be made readily available by the tenant to the police, fire department or the code officer.
The current ordinance requires all landlords to register with the borough, and they must have fire insurance on each house and present proof that their taxes and utility bills are paid and up to date.
A copy of the ordinance is distributed to both landlords and tenants, so each party is aware of their responsibilities, Williams said.
Williams also provides five pages of 70 different points of the current ordinance of what he looks for in a required inspection, so landlords know specifically what to do beforehand.
It is also a daily ordinance, which means each day the problem is not addressed, another citation will be issued.
Councilman Clem Plisiewicz, who is also a landlord of four properties in the borough, said he agrees a flat fee is not fair, but he won't vote in favor of changing it unless there's a guarantee of stronger enforcement and stronger penalties for violators.
"The good landlords are going to pay the fee. The bums will not pay. They're not following the rules now, why would they follow that rule?" he said.
Laptosky is intending to lessen Williams' burden as code enforcement office, but Plisiewicz said it's only going to add more stress to his job.
"Does he have time to go after all these landlords? Right now, he's after them already for not fixing the properties or getting the permits. We're just making another rule for them in order to thumb their noses at us," he said.
Dave Santini, a landlord of 12 units in the borough, said charging landlords more is "another scam" by the borough to get more revenue.
"The borough always looks for more ways to grab more money. Maybe they should try helping us make the housing better instead of always trying ways to rip us off. Charging us more money is by no way going to make the rental units nicer. It just gives us less money to work with," he said.
Santini said he cares about his tenants and works to make sure everything is properly inspected before they move in and while they live there.
If problem landlords are the reason for this potential change, Santini said only the good landlords will be affected.
"The bad landlords will still be bad, and the borough will have more revenue," he said.
Paul Vincenzes, a landlord of 14 units in the borough, said he supports the current ordinance - in fact, he was on the committee in 2008 that developed the current fees and rules - but he would get out of the business of renting if the new fee is passed.
"I don't agree that they're trying to balance their budget on the backs of landlords. Charging a new fee isn't going to change anything. We have to enforce the laws we have," he said.
The proposal will have a lot of opposition, said Vincenzes, who noted he had no problem "leading the charge" against additional fees.
Lapotsky will be presenting the topic for discussion at the Dec. 17 workshop meeting once he researches it thoroughly. It could potentially be voted on at the Dec. 20 regular meeting.
"It's a problem we can't run away from. It's a can of worms, but we've been complaining about it. It's time to stop complaining and start doing," he said.