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New proposal emerges to reduce scope of rental inspection program; city commissioners to debate increasing salaries of commissioners
Getting a new rental licensing and inspection program approved at Lawrence City Hall has become a bit like me trying to walk down my icy driveway this morning: It can be painful on the backside of the anatomy.
Commissioners have been struggling for more than a year to pass a program that essentially would require inspections of every rental unit in the city. Now, a new proposal has emerged. Mayor Mike Dever and Commissioner Mike Amyx have proposed a significant set of changes to the scope of the program. The changes likely will be met with favor from those in the landlord community but may spark concerns among some of the more fervent supporters of the rental licensing program.
Here's a look at some of the larger proposed changes:
— The licensing and inspection program would have an automatic sunset at the end of 2017. In other words, the commission in place in 2017 would have to vote to extend the program, or else it would automatically end.
— The list of items city inspectors could cite as violations would be reduced by more than half. Dever and Amyx are proposing to eliminate 38 items that previously could have been cited as violations. The new list includes 28 violations. Some of the items that no longer would be violations for the purposes of the rental license include: missing handrails on balconies or stairways; clothes dryers that are not properly vented; minimum standards for kitchen and bathroom spaces; and minimum ceiling heights for habitable rooms. You can see the complete list of what was eliminated and what remains by clicking here.
It is important to note that the items that are proposed for elimination still would be a violation of city code, but they wouldn't be held against a landlord for purposes of issuing a license for a rental unit. I talked a bit with Mayor Dever this morning and asked him what would happen if a city inspector saw an item that was a violation of city code but wasn't one of the items he was instructed to look for as part of the rental inspection. For example, an inspector notices a third-story balcony has a missing or very loose railing. Dever said a process will have to be established to deal with those situations, but he said one possibility is that the inspector would note it, and a follow-up inspection would be scheduled. The follow-up inspection would have no bearing on whether the rental unit could receive a license, but the landlord could be found in violation of a city code and be forced to fix the issue and pay a fine.
— There is new language in the proposed ordinance that may make it more difficult for city officials to prosecute a landlord for having too many residents living in a rental unit. Language was added to the ordinance that says a landlord is only in violation of the occupancy code if the landlord knew there were too many people living in the unit. In other words, the city could still take action to reduce the number of people living in the unit, but it couldn't seek to prosecute the landlord for the violation, unless the city could prove the landlord knew about the over occupancy. The city has found it difficult to prosecute over-occupancy cases under the current system. This additional level of proof likely will make the task more difficult.
— The city would be required to give tenants of rental units at least 72 hours notice before any inspection is conducted in their apartments. The ordinance also makes it clear that the tenant has the right to refuse an inspection, but the city also has the right to seek an administrative search warrant, which would allow an inspection to occur against the tenant's wishes.
I'll seek to bring you more reaction to the proposed changes later today. But I'm guessing it will be a spirited meeting on Tuesday. Previously, Commissioners Bob Schumm and Terry Riordan had expressed general support for the previous proposal. Dever and Amyx had expressed concern over the last draft. That leaves Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, who has said he believes an inspection program is needed but has questioned some of its elements. The meeting is set for 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Lawrence City Hall may be a ball of fun on Tuesday. In addition to the rental licensing program, commissioners also will be discussing a topic too hot to touch for the last 14 years: commissioner pay.
Over the years, several commissioners, as they were leaving office, have suggested that the commission really ought to examine the pay scale for the City Commission. Currently, commissioners are paid $9,000 per year, although the mayor gets $10,000. It has been that way for the last 14 years.
Ideas have been floated that commissioners should make anywhere from $19,000 a year to near $30,000 a year. The $30,000 a year range would put Lawrence in the upper tier of salaries for other cities surveyed by Lawrence officials. But it would be in line with what Douglas County commissioners are paid. You can see a list of salaries for commissioners in area cities, by clicking here.
Dever told me this morning that his proposal will be that no pay increase takes place until after elections are held again. In other words, sitting commissioners would not receive a pay increase, unless and until they were re-elected.