February 27, 2024

Commercial inspection program could be on its way out

Council has two more readings to decide fate of policy, which has been suspended for months

Newton Mayor Mike Hansen speaks about commercial business/property inspections program during the June 19 city council meeting at Newton City Hall.

By late July, Newton City Council members will have to decide whether to keep the commercial property inspection program or remove it from city code. The mayor, who cannot cast a vote, made his position very clear at the July 19 meeting: There is no reason to keep a program that is not required by state law.

Newton Mayor Mike Hansen also sees no reason to duplicate fire and health safety inspections in a commercial building. The city does not have to inspect to make sure there is hot and cold water, he said, nor does the city have to make sure a tile is in place. That is the responsibility of the building owner.

“We have building codes in place, we have nuisance codes in place. If the public calls in and says, ‘Hey, I was in such-and-such building and there’s a problem there, I tripped over the sidewalk, I had this or that going on’ or what have you, then our department would react and inspect that,” Hansen said.

Indeed the city does have fire codes and building codes in place. Hansen said the fire department would essentially be asked to conduct fire inspections and life safety inspections, like what was done in the past. The work would be carried out by the fire marshal, or fire prevention specialist, which is a position not yet filled.

Hansen also pointed out that building owners have insurance carriers assess their risk and liability prior to renewals.

“Why are we duplicating that process? Their insurance companies catches those things and say, ‘You need to take care of this or we’re not going to insure you.’ OK? … One other thing: There’s nothing in the code in the State of Iowa that says we need to have a commercial inspection program,” Hansen said. “Zero.”

Which is unlike the rental property inspection program. The city is required by the state to have such program in place. In December 2022, enough landlords complained about the rental inspections program that council temporarily suspended it until some changes could be made.

The council settled on a few changes to the program in April, but rental property owners were not satisfied. Complaints largely targeted the inspection contractor, who was still carrying out the program, much to the chagrin of local landlords. Around the same time, commercial inspections were suspended.

CODES ARE IN PLACE NOW TO ADDRESS MAIN ISSUES

During the June 19 council meeting, elected officials were asked to vote on the first of three readings to rescind the commercial business/property code. This would effectively remove the commercial inspections program from city code. Hansen suggested the program was redundant.

The mayor also submitted that the lack of a commercial inspections program was not to blame for the issues the city had with past properties.

“We had a motel that we should have been on top of years and years ago. That’s not the fault of not having an inspections process in place. That’s in fault of us not taking care of our business,” he said. “The same thing with another hotel here. I’m lookin’ myself in the face here, folks. I’m lookin’ in the mirror. That’s our fault.”

Codes were in place that could have addressed those problem properties, Hansen added, referring to the Newton Inn. The mayor said the city can take care of what it needs to take care of with its existing codes. Hansen said he spoke with business owners, who conveyed to him some issues they dealt with.

“The one thing that I think this council can do is say to their business community: ‘We have these other things in place.’ If somebody calls in and complains, we’re going to be out there looking. We don’t need to be out there bothering you with a commercial inspection to see if you got a light hanging down that needs a cover.”

Hansen said the city can then move the money it is spending on an inspector over to the fire department to go towards hiring a fire marshal. The position would allow the city to be more proactive by scheduling inspections and even educating commercial property owners.

Newton News previously reported 88.24 percent of commercial properties in town passed their initial inspection. Because a majority have passed, or corrected issues, on the next inspection, Hansen said the city can accomplish the same thing through its fire department and achieve similar results.

By running fire and safety inspections, Hansen said it also gives the city a chance to form stronger relationships with commercial property owners.

“Let’s build a relationship with our business community out there through this process,” Hansen said. “Let’s not burden them with an inspection that isn’t necessary.”

The audience of commercial property owners attending the council meeting applauded the mayor for his comments.

WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE OF THE COMMERCIAL INSPECTIONS?

When the commercial business/property inspection program was first established in 2021, council member Evelyn George said it was a result of the city’s commercial D&D program. The city, she said, had many dangerous and dilapidated properties diminishing the image and impression of the community.

“Under the D&D program, the city takes responsibility of demoing those particular buildings, and at that point we said, ‘How do we change this so we get ahead of it and we don’t have the dangerous and dilapidated buildings?’ Because what we were doing was not preventing that from happening,” George said.

Specifically, she claimed the council wanted to hold property owners accountable and responsible for maintaining their properties.

George referenced the Apples of Gold building, which was heavily damaged by the derecho in 2020 and has never been repaired. It has since become a blight in the downtown district and is surrounded by protective fencing. The City of Newton is currently in litigation with the building owner.

“I can tell you from the feedback I’ve gotten from residents and the downtown property owners, this isn’t a good way; this is not an effective way to deal with dangerous and dilapidated properties by taking them to court,” George said. “Because it just takes way too long.”

Although Hansen could not speak on the court action, he noted that George’s mentioning of the former Apples of Gold building is not necessarily a correct comparison. The mayor noted the building was used as a rental property and was subject to residential inspections, not commercial inspections.

The mayor appointed an ad-hoc committee to review the commercial inspections program in March of this year. Council members George, Randy Ervin and Craig Trotter were a part of the committee, which operated in a similar way as the ad-hoc committee for the rental property inspections program.

Ervin agreed with the mayor’s comments but told council members he received feedback from residents asking him to vote against rescinding the ordinance, because they believed there should be something in place. He also worried about some of the larger facilities in town like the former Maytag plants.

COUNCIL MEMBERS STILL NEED MORE INFORMATION

At a past meeting, George said Ervin mentioned a plan to change the commercial inspection program and that more details would come. But George pointed out that there were no details at the time of the council meeting to compare the other proposal to the action being considered.

“Which is, to me, throwing the baby out with the bath water,” George said. “Is this the right thing for the citizens of Newton to just say, ‘We don’t need to inspect our commercial buildings.’ We don’t even have a fire marshal. We don’t have one. What we learned before is that fire marshal was so overwhelmed.”

Ervin requested feedback from staff, especially since the city omitted council reports for both Item 36 and Item 39. Both items addressed the commercial property inspections, with one covering the first reading to rescind the program and another to rescind the fee schedule.

Typically, staff will include council reports for every agenda item, which provide context from past meetings and discussions. Staff will also include some kind of recommendation for council, even if it is to not pass the ordinance or resolution. Ervin also thought the city was going down a different path for the program.

“This is a different proposal that wasn’t on the table before this evening,” he said.

Newton City Administrator Matt Muckler said staff would like to see commercial inspections continue and is hoping to make some changes if council is up for it. But staff also think taxpayers “are probably tired of purchasing things like hotels and demolishing them” because they had not been maintained well.

Regardless of council’s decision, Muckler said staff would advocate for keeping some type of program in place that would reduce, to the fullest extent possible, the amount of buildings the city has to abate under Iowa Code Chapter 657A or outright purchase because they end up being blights and then demolished.

George and fellow council member Melissa Dalton said they needed much more information before making a decision, and perhaps more of an understanding of the ad-hoc committee’s proposal. Council member Vicki Wade said council should vote on it and gather property owners to discuss future options.

“We have been doing that,” George said. “For six months.”

Wade also wanted more clarification from Ervin’s proposal, but she also suggested the program was reactionary. The council, she said, created a program based upon a few outliers that “were obviously not maintaining their properties,” which was to the detriment of responsible property owners.

MOTION TO POSTPONE FAILS, COUNCIL HAS TIME TO THINK

Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik said a lot of work went into meeting with property owners when the ad-hoc committee was appointed to review the program. Wellik said staff was looking for a resolution that would have been amicable for both parties. From a public safety perspective, Wellik advocated for inspections.

“It’s one thing to have insurance companies come in. Every insurance company is different. But having a common inspection through the community, I believe, is of vital importance,” Wellik said, noting some modifications could have been made to the commercial inspections program.

Wellik also said the program came about in large part due to the scope of work being too much for one person to handle. It also melded into council’s goals of improving curb appeal, which also paralleled the mission of the city’s comprehensive plan.

Hansen later said his intent is not to get rid of permits or registrations removed.

“Because we need to know who the emergency contacts are in the building,” Hansen said. “That’s not the intent. The intent is to stop the commercial inspections program as it is today … Or you amend this particular action completely. Or we come back and say, ‘I need some additional information.’”

Dalton made a motion to postpone the ordinance, which was seconded by George. But the motion failed in a 2-3 vote, with Dalton and George voting yes. Trotter was absent and could not vote. The mayor reminded council it would take multiple readings before the ordinance is adopted.

Council member Mark Hallam summed up the removal of the commercial inspections program as a return to what some might have referred to in debate as “status quo ante,” or a reversion to the previously existing state of affairs. But he was still intrigued by the hybrid plan teased at past meetings.

If I do vote in favor of going back to pre-2020, I want to hear more from city staff about the hybrid plan as Chief Wellik and Randy Ervin and I spoke about,” Hallam said. “I’d like to hear more about that when it comes to these large properties … I would like all of us to consider that in the near future.”

Dalton said she would like to know what was being practiced before the program was in place. Ervin advocated for a new ordinance being presented to council in the coming weeks that was specify certain inspections for different kinds of properties.

“I’m not for completely scrapping the program,” Ervin said. “…If we get rid of this, we as a council, we have to be responsible for bringing something back.”

George questioned why the city couldn’t just keep the program suspended until a new program can be considered for council approval as opposed to removing the program now and coming up with another program sometime later. “You’re achieving the same thing,” George said.

In a 4-1 vote, with George voting no, council passed the first reading.

The city council also later voted 5-0 in favor of rescinding the fee schedule for the commercial inspections program.

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.