Opposition has surfaced to a proposed plan requiring landlords who own private rental properties to register with the city each year.

Bartholomew County Landlord Association representatives said they oppose the proposal. It would require a $5 registration fee per rental property parcel within the city limits starting in the spring, said Susan Thayer Fye, an association member.

Under the ordinance, the rental registration program would allow police and fire department personnel to have contact information for landlords in case of emergencies with their property, said Robin Hilber, city community development programs coordinator.

But Fye said the landlord association opposes the proposal, saying that the information is already available online. The registration program should be required for everyone in Columbus, not just landlords, she said.

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“Why are we being singled out and they’re not?” Fye said.

Landlords are being asked to provide their name, address and an emergency contact number. If the property owner doesn’t live in Bartholomew or a contiguous county, the name and contact information for a local representative of the landlord will be sought, according to Hilber. Each time the rental property changes ownership, a new registration would be required within 30 days of the transfer, she said.

Fye questioned the validity of the information that would be entered into the proposed database kept by the city, saying those details often change on a daily basis.

“I don’t think people at City Hall realize how fast that information changes,” she said.

In case of emergency

Fye said she doubted fire and police personnel would contact rental property owners in emergency situations. However, the Columbus Fire Department said they are required to do so because it is the property owner’s responsibility to secure their property after an emergency situation.

When a fire or other emergency happens, the fire department contacts a dispatcher from the Emergency Operations Center to see if they can locate the property owner from their records, particularly if the property is a rental unit, said Capt. Mike Wilson, spokesman for the Columbus Fire Department. Once the fire department leaves the scene, it is the property owner’s responsibility to secure the site, he said.

The ordinance and policy change is being modeled off cities including Bloomington and Indianapolis that already have rental registration programs in place, Hilber said.

Inspections would not be required under the proposal, Hilbur said. If the ordinance is approved, landlords could register by paper forms, or online, Hilber said.

Members of the public could access the registration information by making a public records request with the city, Hilber said.

Landlords opposed

Brad Grayson, president of the Bartholomew County Landlord Association, said he is opposed to the idea of mandated registration and will oppose the proposal when it is presented to Columbus City Council members Jan. 16.

Many association representatives plan to protest the proposal, Grayson said. The organization represents 450 landlords in Bartholomew County.

Grayson, who has been a landlord in Columbus for 40 years, said he thinks the proposed legislation is overreaching by the city.

“This is just another way to hammer landlords,” he said, adding that the proposal serves no purpose, describing it as another attempt by the city to create a law.

Grayson also agreed with Fye that the proposed program is a duplication of information that is already available online, noting that details about properties can be accessed through a GIS system provided by the Bartholomew County Assessor’s Office. He has never been contacted by fire or police personnel during his time as a landlord, he said.

Grayson said he doesn’t think that would change if the proposed registration program was established.

“It’s a way to dramatize the situation and justify having another law,” Grayson said.

Richard Fogler, Columbus, who renovates properties and then rents them to low-income individuals, said he is also opposed to the idea of mandatory registration. Fogler described the move as an attempt by the city to have control over landlords.

However, Hilber said the proposed rental registration program would be beneficial since many rental properties are listed under limited liability companies, but contact information is not available. Registration would not be required for apartment complexes within the city limits because the city already has a contact person for each of the complexes, Hilber said.

Support for idea

City Councilman Frank Miller said he supports the idea of a rental registration program being created. Apartment complexes in Columbus already have a central office and a main contact person that can be reached in case of emergencies, he said.

That isn’t the case for other rentals elsewhere in Columbus, he added.

“We don’t have that on the individually-owned rental properties,” Miller said. It’s difficult for the city to find the ownership of some of the properties, he said.

The proposed rental registration system will also help the city’s code enforcement officer, Fred Barnett, locate the owners of properties whenever there might be code enforcement issues, Miller said. The city recently enacted an abandoned vehicle ordinance that allows landlords to be fined for abandoned an non-working vehicles on private property, including rentals.

Hilber said the program will be beneficial for nearby homeowners since having a phone number available for property owners will help expedite the process if they are code enforcement issues that need to be resolved.

Currently, the city’s code enforcement department sends certified letters to some property owners, which typically takes longer, Hilber said.

As part of the registration process, individuals will also be able to voluntarily submit any diagrams or drawings to the city on their applications showing the layout of the property. That information would be made available to police and fire personnel, which could assist them in emergency situations, Miller said.

The proposed $5 fee would be used for reimbursement of costs incurred by the city in implementing the program, according to Hilber. The money collected through registration fees would be placed into an established non-reverting fund, meaning any funds in the account could only be spent on the program.

Under the proposed ordinance, penalties would be imposed for those who fail to register with the city. Fines would be assessed at $100 for the first violation per parcel after the first 30 days and would then increase to $250 per parcel after 60 days and $500 per parcel after 90 days.

“It’s not being implemented as a money maker by any means,” Hilber said. “We feel it’s going to be beneficial for police and fire personnel, but homeowners as well.”

Not all landlords are against the city’s plan. Christopher Rutan, a landlord and property manager with CST Properties, said he backs the plan and believes it will be a benefit in the long run. Rutan, a former member of the Bartholomew County Landlord Association, is planning to speak to council members voicing his support.

“I fully am 100 percent behind this program,” Rutan said. “This is exactly what we need.”

Rutan, who owns four properties in Columbus and also serves as coordinator of the Ninth Street Neighborhood Watch program, said the city having a direct list of contact information would make it easier to contact people in emergency situations. He also supports fines being implemented for individuals who fail to register if the proposed plan goes into effect, he said.

“I think there has to be something on the books,” Rutan said. “A lot of landlords who are opposed to this don’t know how this program works. The GIS (system) is not 100 percent accurate.”

The proposed ordinance, which requires two readings, is subject to change before it heads to Columbus City Council, Hilber said. If the legislation is passed, mandatory registration would likely take effect the following 60 days, but that will ultimately be decided by council members, she added.

What's next

Columbus City Council will consider the first reading of an ordinance that would require owners of private rental properties to register with the city during its 6 p.m. meeting Jan. 16 at Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com