First Posted: 7/18/2013
Pittston City Council updated an ordinance Wednesday night requiring biennial safety and fire inspections of all rental units and businesses.
The goal is to protect the health and safety of residents and to clean up dilapidated and neglected properties, said City Administrator Joe Moskovitz. “I’ve been here almost three years and the condition of some of these properties is criminal,” he said.
Several property owners came to the meeting to voice disapproval.
“How much money do you think you can get out of us?” asked resident Tom McFarland.
Moskovitz said the purpose of the measure isn’t about making money, it’s about safety. “We want to help you protect your property and protect your neighbor’s property,” Moskovitz said. Fees will help beef up code enforcement, he added.
The former ordinance didn’t provide for the staffing needed to conduct such inspections, he previously said.
The current inspection staff includes a full-time employee, Harry Smith, and a part-time employee who is also part of the fire department. Moskovitz hopes to add another full-time and another part-time staffer under a restructured code enforcement office.
“We need the resources to enforce these programs so that the housing stock is maintained; that is a fact,” Moskovitz said.
There are a minimum of 1,800 units in the city, and Moskovitz believes that number will increase once a new list is compiled. At current staffing levels, he said there would have to be seven inspections a day for five days a week, 52 weeks a year. But with added staff, he can get the number of inspections down to a more manageable three a day, Moskovitz said.
Council voted 4-1 in favor of the measure with Councilmen Michael Lombardo, Joe Chernouskas, Joe McClean and Mayor Jason Klush voting “yes” and Danny Argo casting the lone “no” vote to the ordinance and a related list of fees.
“The landlords are overburdened now with paying sewage fees and taxes,” Argo said. “It’s unbelievable the overhead they have, and I would hate to see the people living in these apartments, who are just about getting by, have their rental rates be raised. It’s too much of a burden for the property owners.”
Argo suggested it’s going to be difficult for landlords to schedule inspections because many work 9 to 5 jobs.
One resident, Marian Knapp, complained the city is unfairly targeting rental units.
“It’s discriminatory because you’re singling out the landlords and not homeowers whose properties are falling apart,” she said.
Chernouskas held up a three-page list of citations to homeowners filed by the city’s code enforcement office. He said that, as a landlord himself, he sees the ordinance as an important step in cleaning up the neighborhoods.
“The rental property next to me, the grass is three feet high, there’s garbage and there’s feral cats living under the front porch,” he said. “Why should my tenants have to put up with that?”
According to the ordinance, rental units will be inspected for safety and fire issues such as the presence of smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. Businesses and institutions will undergo more rigorous inspections, such as fire sprinkler system and alarm system tests as defined by state codes.
Under the updated ordinance, landlords will be required to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy from the inspections.
Council also approved a fee schedule. The initial inspection and occupancy certificate will be pro-rated the first period. After Dec. 31, 2014, the fee will be $50 a year or $100 biennially. Re-inspections because of violations will cost $15. Commercial, industrial, educational and institutional certificates will range from $100 to $300, depending on the size.
If a violation if discovered during an inspection, according to the ordinance, written notice will be given and the landlord will have 30 days to make repairs or fix the violation. If the violations aren’t corrected by then, fines could be levied.
Resident Barb Zangre was concerned that people renting apartments could wind up on the street or homeless if a property doesn’t pass inspection. She was assured that if there is such a situation, a referral is made to a proper aid agency.
The measure is considered part of the city’s Neighborhood Housing Stabilization and Development Initiative.
Council passed an ordinance in 2007 that required registration of all tenants and inspection of all privately-owned rental properties and businesses, but it wasn’t enforced because of a lack of manpower and political infighting.
In other business:
• Council approved the purchase of a trash collection vehicle for $180,658.
• Appointed Pastor Samuel Washington of Perspective Church as chairman of the city’s new Human Relations Commission. Anyone hoping to sit on that commission or the Parks and Recreation Commission should send a letter to the mayor and council for consideration.
• Moskovitz announced Phase 2 of the Mill Street Sewer Project has begun. Latona Construction is the contractor.
• The lights on the Firefighters Memorial Bridge will be working again before the start of the Tomato Festival, cheduled for Aug. 15-18. Funding for light repair was made through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
• The city has ordered recycling containers through a grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Delivery of the containers is expected to be in early August and residents will be notified when they can pick them up at City Hall.
• Council has set a special meeting for 6 p.m. July 31 for the purpose of awarding bids for the new lighting at the Riverfront Park and the Kennedy Boulevard catch basin replacement project.