Councilor Proposes Tougher Fines For Code Violations

OSWEGO, NY – Oswego councilors Monday night continued to wrestle with how to manage the city’s rental permits and inspection fees.

“We spent about 95 percent of our time when we had codes, doing inspections. That’s pretty much all we do, leaving little time for enforcement,” Councilor Mike Todd said. “Nothing really gets done with enforcement. We need to get to a point where we have some teeth to go after these houses and start cleaning them up.”

There is a group of landlords in the city that is responsible and maintain their properties “the right way” he said. And there is a large group that doesn’t he added.

“We need to be able to fix that,” he said.

Based on his discussions with assistant city attorney Tom Reynolds and city of Syracuse officials and others, “Pretty much, I’m under the opinion that we can’t compel people to do inspections. There is no longer a way for that to happen,” he said.

He suggested the city do away with inspections and charge a rental permit; keeping $30 every three years, or pay $150 and if your properties stay in good repair after three years, you no longer pay a fee as long as the property stay in good repair.

This doesn’t completely get rid of inspections, he added.

Tenants can institute by law an inspection, Todd said.

Instead of sending letter after letter after letter out (to violators), the city should immediately go to a fine process (for any property owners, not just landlords), he said.

After the first notification, seven days later, he proposed implementing a $250 fine; if the problem hasn’t been fixed seven days later the fine would be $500. If the problem isn’t corrected seven days after that, “I’m proposing we hit them for $1,000. And seven days later, if the still haven’t fix it, we hit them for $100 a day until the fines assessed equal half the assessed value and then the city seizes the property,” he said.

He also suggested citing the tenants with points, instead of the landlords in some cases.

“If it takes seven months for you to get thrown out of a house, then there really is no incentive for you to behave,” Todd said.

If they get three points it would be an automatic $250 fine, six points would be a $500 fine, if they get nine it would be a $1,000 fine and the city would start immediate eviction process. For 12 points it would be a $2,500 fine.

“And if you get to 15 points, it’s a $5,000 fine and if the landlord hasn’t done the eviction at that point, they lose their rental permit until it is fixed,” he said. “We need to start going after where the problems are.”

One resident called the councilor’s proposal “totally outrageous.”

“It looks like you’re going after everybody … instead of really thinking this thing out,” he said.

It would only take a couple times fining someone before everyone started getting the message and cleaned up their property, Todd said.

Council President Ron Kaplewicz agreed in principle with Todd’s proposal, but questioned the legality of parts of it.

Councilor Mike Myers said he likes the fine portion of Todd’s proposal.

He suggested the council move forward with that and that way “if there are questions about the rest, we can sit down and work on it.”

“If we’re going to move forward with something that says we’re going to stop doing inspections, I think this will take a little bit for us to do a code change, accept it and amend everything, we’re going to need a solution now.”

He suggested a moratorium on issuing rental permits.

“I can’t say in good conscious that we continue to take money for rental permits when we’re not going to do inspections. I think we should stop that process,” Council Vice President Eric VanBuren said.

Myers suggested changing rental permit to “certificate” so all landlords or business owners have to register their property with the city at the current fee.

Kaplewicz said there needs to be proof of fire and liability insurance, prior to the building being rented.

The current system of going after violators “is very ineffective,” Councilor Fran Enwright pointed out. “I’ve had one property in the past year that has had 38 letters. This is very ineffective.”

The high fine structure should be a deterrent, he said.

There isn’t any silver bullet to fix this issue, Kaplewicz said.

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something new. We shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes or making changes,” he said.

The councilors went into executive session at the end of Monday night’s Administrative Services Committee meeting to discuss possible legal ramifications of the proposed changes.

Public discussion on the proposal will continue on the council floor at a later date.