Kulpmont council, landlord meeting canceled
KULPMONT - A meeting planned between borough council and landlords over a per-unit registration fee has been cancelled.
Borough officials said they did so because borough solicitor William Cole could not be present for the session, originally scheduled for Wednesday, but one landlord said it's the third time in January a meeting has been canceled.
"This fee is way too excessive, compared to other fees in the area," said Steve Matzura. "They are not allowed to be doing what they are doing."
Matzura has been meeting with members of council monthly since the rental property ordinance was passed in 2010, trying to come up with a compromise.
It's something that borough council member Phil Scicchitano, who has been part of those meetings, said he would like to see as well.
"I hope we all could come to some kind of an agreement that could satisfy everyone," he said Friday, but could not say when the meeting would be rescheduled.
The ordinance says fees for its administration can be changed by borough council.
The first resolution to change the fees occurred Feb. 8, 2011, when a proposed fee of $100 per year for each landlord who rents a property in the borough was set, along with $50 for the first occupancy inspection fee and $25 for subsequent inspections. Those inspections are done each time a new occupant rents the property.
On May 14, 2013, the landlord registration fee was increased by a 6-1 vote to $120 per unit. A landlord who paid a $100 registration fee in 2013 for five properties must now pay $600.
The new fee schedule was set to go into effect Jan. 1; however, a number of landlords came to December's borough council meeting to protest. Council voted to postpone the increase until March 1 and to escrow any fees collected until the matter is settled.
Matzura rents two properties in Kulpmont, so his fee will increase from $100 to $240 March 1.
"It's not a big jump up for me, but it will be for some that rent a number of properties. I'm fighting it because what they're doing is wrong," Matzura said.
Borough officials said the higher fee helps to pay the costs of having a full-time code enforcement officer.
But, Matzura said, "There are many communities in the state that have tried this, and several have been challenged in court. They can't charge more than what it takes to run the program."
He said he has tried to give borough council members articles about the court fights in other municipalities.
According to a 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer story, a Chester County judge struck down West Chester's rental property and inspection program, saying an increase from $25 in 1996 to $42 in 2000 is an illegal tax because the borough does not need that much money to run the program. Commonwealth Court upheld the ruling in 2004, according to the paper.
Code officer Russ Moroz said Friday that 32 properties have already been registered and $3,840 has been collected. That money will be placed in escrow until a final decision is made on the fees and could be refunded if the amount is changed.
If the fee remains in place, it will be the highest in the area.
Shamokin and Coal Township each charge a registration fee of $25 per unit with Coal Township adding a $25 inspection fee. Mount Carmel changed its fee schedule in 2013, charging a $100 annual license per landlord and a $25 per rental unit fee. Ralpho Township has no fee for landlords, but requires them to report any change in tenants.
Matzura said the increased fee is more of a tax that other residents don't have to pay, and that landlords pay enough taxes.
"Part of the requirement is that we have to have our property taxes paid up in order to rent the unit, and we also have sewage and other fees that we pay," Matzura said. "Personally, I think it's fine to have a per unit fee, but this one is too much."
Scicchitano said Kulpmont Borough Council is divided on the issue.
"There are some members that feel the fee is justified, but some that think it is too high," Scicchitano said. "We've done a lot of thinking in the past few months about this."
The member who made the motion on the fee, Stephen Motyka, said in December the $120 fee is paltry compared to the $500-$600 a month landlords get from each tenant.
The group balked at those figures, saying no one gets that amount for rent, if they get paid at all.
In December, councilmember Joseph Winhofer suggested charging a $100 registration fee for the first four unit a landlord owns and $25 for each unit afterwards. Many of the landlords in attendance agreed, but no action was taken.
"There are a number of good ideas that are floating around about this," Scicchitano said. "The problem is they need four votes to be enacted."
Despite the setback, Matzura remains undeterred and used the cancellation as a rallying cry for the landlords to meet Wednesday to discuss their efforts.
"Despite the council's actions," he wrote in an e-mail to other landlords announcing the cancellation, "We must continue to be positive and work together if we want to accomplish our goal of eliminating this invalid taxing scheme."