SALEM - City officials proposed Tuesday to increase the housing occupancy license fee as a means to hire a second part-time housing inspector to keep up with the department's workload.
The Rules & Ordinances Committee of City Council agreed to recommend an ordinance to make changes to the occupancy license section in the city code, increasing the annual license fee from $15 to $40 for dwelling units of up to 25 units per structure and to $30 for each additional unit over the 25 units per structure.
Another change proposed is to increase the penalty for nonpayment of the occupancy fee from $30 per unit to $50 per unit and to change wording from "an occupancy license shall be issued for dwelling units as required" to "an occupancy license may be issued for dwelling units as required."
Committee Chair Councilman Rick Drummond said Mayor John Berlin had asked if some changes could be made. The housing department is a department of one at the moment, with housing inspector Dan Rice working part-time. A second part-time inspector was laid off in March 2010, leaving Rice on his own.
Drummond said Rice is doing as good a job as he can do in the time he's given to do the work. Former Councilwoman Mary Lou Popa had come to a couple of meetings this year asking council to hire a second housing inspector and expressing concern for some of the conditions of properties in the city. She attended this meeting, too.
With the increase in fees, Drummond said the city will be able to add another part-time inspector. The actual hiring of an inspector will be up to the mayor.
Committee member Councilman Clyde Brown asked why they couldn't just do a flat fee instead of having two different fees, saying that could cause more workload for the inspector to have to determine who has more than 25 units, but Drummond clarified that the fee goes by buildings or complexes, not by an aggregate of all the units owned by an individual. He said Rice already knows which addresses have multiple units.
Committee member Councilwoman Cyndi Baronzzi Dickey asked about hotels that may rent out rooms long-term for gas and shale people and whether there should be language added to the ordinance to address that. It was explained that hotels pay a bed tax, which is different from the occupancy license fee, which is more for residential housing. The occupancy license fee does not apply to commercial entities.
During the meeting, South Lincoln Avenue resident Karen Carter addressed the committee to express her concern about rental properties, saying "slumlords have changed the look of our town."
She suggested council members drive around in the wards and neighborhoods and talk to residents and look at the conditions, especially in areas such as Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Wilson streets, and Newgarden and Sharp avenues.
"Many people can't sell their homes because of all the drugs and rentals in their neighborhoods," she said.
She said much of the housing inspector's time is dealing with paperwork in the office and an additional housing inspector is needed for actual housing inspections. She asked if the rental units are supposed to be inspected each year. The language in the ordinance says they are, but with the workload, it's not possible.
She also questioned the amount of the increase and whether it should be more, noting how much she has to pay if a service person comes to her home to do some work. Drummond said the intent isn't to make a profit, but to make the office self-sustainable and increase it enough to hire a second inspector.
Dickey said she's generally against raising rates, but she's also seen some of the conditions of rental properties and said they would be doing residents a disservice by not doing inspections. In this case, she said the rates need to be increased.
Brown said during his meetings with Second Ward constituents, conditions of properties and the fact that the housing department should have more authority are two of the issues that keep being raised.
Council President Mickey Cope Weaver, who was in the audience, asked if an administrative assistant could be added, along with the second housing inspector, to help with paperwork. Drummond said he'll take the idea back to the mayor and Rice for their input, but wanted to get the ordinance and current proposed changes before council.
In other business, the committee approved a recommendation to send council a vacation ordinance for a section of Butcher Road from the cul de sac near Pershing to East State Street. The vacation of the land was a condition of the property owner donating land to the city to extend Pershing Street to Butcher Road.
The parcel of land was to be returned to the owner if the city chose not to extend Butcher Road back up to State Street.
The city Planning Commission had already taken action in June to vacate the 672-foot abandoned portion of Butcher Road.
Mary Ann Greier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org