City fine tunes rental rules

FAIRMONT – Fairmont is not out to get the landlords, according to city staff and elected officials.

“As a city, we can be more favorable to landlords as we go along. … We’re not trying to overburden anybody,” said Councilman Wes Clerc, at a meeting with landlords, the grassroots Focus on Fairmont group, city staff and council members.

The purpose of Monday’s gathering was to hash out differences and clarify points of confusion in a proposed rental housing ordinance. For the most part, those objectives were reached.

Nothing is final until the council votes April 28, but some of the issues addressed Monday include:

o Unpaid utilities. If utilities aren’t paid by a landlord, he or she cannot get a new license or renew an existing one. If utilities aren’t paid by a tenant, the city will not punish the landlord.

Regarding any confusion as to when and how utilities should be transferred from a tenant’s name to the landlord, City Administrator Mike Humpal said the Public Utilities Commission will review policy to see what changes can be made. The rental housing ordinance is not the place to make those changes, according to Humpal.

o Consent for inspections. The inspections for health and safety concerns will take place no more than once every three years, unless a rental unit fails to pass an inspection.

Mike Fotey, who formerly owned rental properties in the Fairmont area, questioned how the city will “get around the 4th amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires a warrant to conduct an inspection.

City Attorney Elizabeth Bloomquist said landlords are consenting to the inspections when they register their properties. She also encouraged landlords to include in their leases that tenants must consent to the inspections.

o Prices for inspections and registration.

The prices will not be included in the ordinance, since they are subject to change. The cost that’s been discussed is $40 per inspection, which is what the city charges per hour for its employees’ time when a small city needs a building inspector.

Landlord Doug Willner requested a 5- or 10-year guarantee that prices won’t go up, but city staff and elected officials said they couldn’t give him any guarantees.

“We can’t raise the fees without a public hearing,” Clerc said.

Councilman Darin Rahm assured Willner that the city is not going to pass on the entire cost of the rental housing code to the landlords.

Willner voiced concerns about how the city will keep the price as low as $40 for inspections, considering the amount of time it could take the city’s two building inspectors to inspect thousands of units.

“How can they do that many more?” he asked. … If so, are we overstaffed in the building department?”

“Our hope,” said Councilman Joe Kallemeyn, “is that the building inspectors will only have to go to each unit once every 3-6 years.”

Clerc pointed out that if landlords hire private inspectors, as they will have the right to do, that would cut down on the number of inspections the city has to conduct.

“We want to inspect these as cost-efficiently as we can,” Humpal said.

o Three strikes and a landlord’s out of a license.

Strikes against a landlord are only counted if the city can prove the landlord has done nothing to address a problem.

One scenario brought up at Monday’s meeting was if a tenant complains to the city about a building/health or safety issue. The city’s first response will be to make sure the tenant has first informed the landlord about the problem.

Landlord Leland Leichtnam was relieved to hear that: “We don’t hear about a lot of problems, until we get on someone because they’re late with rent.”

“We want to be the last resort for you, as well as the tenant, with these complaints,” Humpal said.

o Landlord notification of a tenant’s disorderly behavior.

Tim McConnell asked if instead of sending a notice of disorderly conduct by first-class mail, as stated in the proposed ordinance, the city use a quicker method of communication, such as email or text.

Councilman Chad Askeland suggested landlords give a preferred way to be reached when they register with the city, an idea that was well-received. Legally, the city will still be required to send out a formal notification via first-class mail.

Willner also asked if the police could do a better job keeping landlords informed when a tenant is involved in shady activities at the rental property. Willner said he heard through the grapevine that illegal activity was taking place at one of his properties, but the officer said he couldn’t release any information. Willner put in a request for information 10 days ago, but has heard nothing yet.

“The communication’s not great,” he said.

City staff explained that if an investigation is taking place, law enforcement can’t say anything that would impede the investigation. Even mentioning that an investigation is taking place can alert an offender and blow a case that law enforcement has been working on.

“Our goal is to give information to the landlords as soon as we can,” Humpal said. “… But the priority will fall with the investigation.”

If there’s an ongoing investigation and complaints are made that a landlord is doing nothing to stop illegal activity at one of their properties, no strikes will be made against the landlord.

Steve Hawkins with Focus on Fairmont, the group that first pushed for the city to adopt a rental code, wanted the city to make an exception if the criminal activities were having a negative impact to a neighborhood.

“Sometimes it can’t wait,” he said.

Humpal made no promises: “We’ll do the best we can.”

o City notification of a rental property to a landlord.

The draft of the ordinance calls for the city to be notified prior to a sale of rental property. Willner asked that the language be changed to state that the city must be notified after the sale.

“What if a deal falls through?” he said.

City staff said the notification would help them keep track of who owns rental property in Fairmont. The pending ordinance gives new landlords 30 days to register their property, so if someone fails to register, the notification would give them the information they need to send out a reminder to the new landlord to register.

Humpal agreed to examine the language.

The group will meet again 3:30 April 9 at City Hall. The council is scheduled to hold a hearing 5:30 p.m. April 14 and then vote on the ordinance April 28.