Under requirements approved Tuesday by the City Council, property owners caught with buildings that seriously run afoul of city building codes will now have to pay for the time officials spend getting them to comply.
The City Council approved the new "compliance permit" and fees in a 6-1 vote, with council member John Inks and a dozen property owners sharply opposed.
City attorney Michael Martello made the case for the permit, showing pictures of homes, motels and industrial buildings that he said are a danger to tenants and neighborhoods "powder kegs" that, under the right conditions, could burn down a city block or fall down in an earthquake, he said. Possibly the city's most puzzling case ever, Martello said, is a 100-year-old house at 313 Higdon Ave. that was reconfigured into an eight-unit apartment building.
Martello said the permit would recover the staffing cost for hours worked by the fire marshal, zoning administrator, planning director and building official in "situations where staff have to figure out if (the building owner) can have what they already built."
In his opposition, Inks said the permit would "incentivize" code enforcement officers to go out and find major violations to bring in revenue. He added that city officials already get paid a salary.
"To be clear ... this is about raising money," he said, adding that similar permits and fees in other cities have led to "further noncompliance" and the "collapse" of code enforcement efforts, which led to the necessity of giving property owners an "amnesty" period.
Member Ronit Bryant said that she was "shocked" by opposition from Inks.
"I don't think we're incentivizing code enforcement officers," she said. "I have much deeper trust in our staff."
Inks pointed out that small businesses were already being hit with fines for "petty" violations, such as a $500 fine on the Milk Pail Market for selling pumpkins in the parking lot.
Speaking for a dozen property owners, Charles Gardyn, owner of the La Costena building at Rengstorff Avenue and Old Middlefield Way, said that by requiring the compliance permit, there is an "automatic presumption a violation exists" which makes the code enforcement officer the "accuser, prosecutor, judge and jury all rolled into one. For all practical purposes there is no due process."
He added that there is no limit on the fees, and that the building owner can be "denied use of his property and his livelihood."
Martello said businesses could still choose to fight violations in court, and that the new permit was directed at those who wanted to comply voluntarily but needed to be "shepherded" through existing processes.
The ordinance was clearly "a positive thing" to member Jac Siegel and most of the council.
"This is meant to help, not be a penalty," Siegel said. If permits had been pulled in the first place, "you would have paid for it anyway. Now we're saying we're not going to penalize you for coming in; let's do it right."
The issue was less clear to council member Mike Kasperzak.
"You can't look at this picture and say, OK, this makes eminent sense," Kasperzak said, adding that "part of me is saying, 'Question authority.'"
Member Tom Means said the council had not had a philosophical discussion about what services should be paid for with fees, though the council recently supported more "cost recovery" to deal with an ongoing deficit. "If a reference librarian does extra work for somebody, should we charge them?" Means said.
Steve Rasmussen, owner of the Milk Pail Market for 35 years, said that it would be helpful if there was some way to "mediate" the tension between property owners and the code enforcement department. After the meeting he said it is easy to believe that "You can't fight City Hall."
In response to Rasmussen's concerns, Council member Laura Macias suggested that the city have "a general ombudsman that (property owners) can always call," an idea which was not included in the final vote. "We can't expect residents to know the process as well as we do, that's just unfair," she said.
Addressing Macias' concerns, senior assistant city attorney Jannie Quinn suggested there be a project manager for each compliance case. The city manager was given the power to lay out the administrative guidelines for the permit.
The council also decided to review the new practice in a year.