Kulpmont deadlock remains over landlord ordinance
KULPMONT - Borough leaders and landlords discussed revising a proposed landlord registration fee during a 30-minute meeting last week. After the contentious debate, borough council deadlocked on two votes and, in the end, nothing was settled.
The topic is likely be raised at council's monthly meeting Tuesday, but it's not known whether the proposed $120 per rental unit registration fee, its Jan. 1 implementation already delayed, will go into effect as planned on March 1.
Silence, then a motion
About 13 landlords attended a special council meeting Tuesday to discuss changing the $120 fee, part of an ordinance that council approved in May. Through 2013, Kulpmont was charging a $100 yearly registration fee per landlord, no matter how many properties they rented.
Two proposals were voted on, but neither passed because the vote came out 3-3. Council member Joseph Winhofer and Mayor Bernie Novakoski were absent. While the mayor doesn't typically vote, he can in the case of a deadlock.
Council President Bruno Varano informed those in attendance from the start that he wasn't sure if any vote was going to be taken.
"Let's all just try to be civil with each other," he said. "I know every one is in a hyper state over this."
Asked for public comment at the start, the landlords were silent, waiting instead to see if council would vote.
Varano said several proposals had been presented, but that council members were looking for more suggestions that night. He said council could mull over the suggestions in advance of this week's regular meeting.
Hearing none, Varano was ready to move on, but councilman Phil Scicchitano said he wanted to settle the issue.
Scicchitano made a motion to change the fee to $100 for the first rental unit and $60 for each additional property.
Using an example of a landlord owning five properties, that would drop the fee from $600 to $300 a year.
The motion was seconded by Nicholas Bozza, but before a vote was taken, Councilman Stephen Motyka spoke up. It was Motyka who made the motion back in May to increase the fee to $120 per rental per year.
Good, bad landlords
"The way I see it, that puts all landlords on level ground," he said about Scicchitano's motion, "but it doesn't get to the core root of the problem in which there were a couple of bad apples that cause problems for the rest of the group."
"In that reasoning, we should increase the fines on the bad apples, not punish the good landlords," council member Clarence Deitrick replied.
Motyka then made a subsidiary motion that would reward good landlords.
"We would start the landlords at one set price at $120 per unit in the first year, and if they are not cited, the fee drops to $100 the next year, and then down to $80 in the third year," Motyka said.
If the landlord is cited for a violation in any year, the fee would go back up to $120 per unit.
Stephanie Niglio seconded Motyka's motion. On the subsidiary motion, Motyka, Niglio and Varano voted yes and Deitrick, Schicchitano and Bozza voted no.
Council then voted on Schicchitano's motion, with the votes being reversed - Bozza, Deitrick and Schicchitano voting yes and Motyka, Niglio and Varano voting no.
Varano then said he received a suggestion for a $250 overall fee and $25 per unit, but everyone in attendance seemed to agree that wouldn't be fair for landlords who only have one or two units to pay such a high overall fee.
"It's going to be tough for everyone to find a happy medium in this matter," Varano responded.
Discussion breaks down
At that point, the meeting began to break down as landlords complained about how they were being treated and whether the fee justifies the cost for code enforcement officer Russ Moroz.
"Has there been enough study done on how much time he spends on landlords?" asked landlord Rhonda Pollock, who lives in both Mount Carmel and Berks County. "There are some properties that are impeccable that he might spend 15 minutes inspecting and others that he spends three hours at. We need to see those logs to determine if the fee justifies the time."
The leader of the effort against the fee, Steve Matzura, of Kulpmont, had the last word.
"It's obvious the borough didn't research the matter before raising the fee," he said. "No one knows what the number should be. The number must be what it takes for Russ to regulate the landlords and provide code enforcement services."
"Well, it takes a lot more than $25 per unit," Varano said.
"And that's your opinion," Matzura answered, "but there is no documentation to show that."
"The ordinance itself doesn't say we need documentation," Varano fired back.
"But the law does," Matzura retorted.
Some landlords see the fee and the controversy surrounding it as the proverbial "last straw."
"I own two properties that I haven't started renting out yet, but I'm about ready to sell them off and say the hell with it. This is ridiculous," landlord Sondra Krebs said during the meeting. "Why not go after the people that are causing the problem?"
"We cannot balance a budget on fines," Varano said in response.