A majority of city council members support the idea of hiring a private management company to collect and handle restaurant lease payments in The Commons.
That idea goes contrary to a memo of understanding being drafted between the Columbus Redevelopment Commission and Columbus Parks and Recreation Board, designating who would collect rent and utility payments from the tenants.
City administration has said that a resolution approved Dec. 17, 2012, gave the parks department that responsibility. But park board members and the council have argued the document wasn’t valid because the park board never approved it.
Once the lease-handling agreement is completed by attorneys representing the two government bodies, it will go to the Redevelopment Commission and Parks and Recreation Board for approval.
But city departments, commissions and boards were not created to be landlords, contend a majority of council members polled by The Republic. They suggest a professional management company would provide a tenant a single point of contact for questions.
The desire for a formal agreement arose after city officials learned late last year that Snappy Tomato Pizza had not made payments to the city for all of 2013, to the sum of $27,238 including penalties.
Mayor Kristen Brown held then-parks and recreation director Ben Wagner responsible for failing to have procedures in place to detect missing payments. She cited the lack of procedure in a Dec. 30 letter as one reason for demoting him to the department’s marketing director.
A job description for the parks department director, dated Sept. 4, 2013, and available at the city’s human resources department, does not specify collecting rents from Commons tenants as one of the position’s duties, however. The job description also says the parks director reports to the Parks and Recreation Board.
In early January, the city established new controls for monitoring Commons tenants’ rent and utilities payments, including having the parks department’s director of business services provide monthly financial reports about payments to the city and park board.
Council member Frank Jerome, who also serves on the Columbus Redevelopment Commission, said the thinking is that because the parks department already collects about $2 million in user fees annually, they should be able to collect payments from four restaurants in The Commons.
“It seems reasonable that the parks department should collect the payments. Why pay money to an outside person?” Jerome said.
But the polling of council members suggests that most of them look at the matter differently.
Council member Kenny Whipker said he thinks local government should not be managing properties.
While collecting payments from just four Commons tenants would seem to be an easy task, it didn’t work out that way in the case of Snappy Tomato, council member Dascal Bunch said.
The user fees the parks department collects go back into programs they are responsible for, and rent collection is not part of the department’s mission, council member Ryan Brand said.
Because the city has many boards and commissions, it can be difficult for tenants to know whom to turn to with questions, council members said. But if a professional management company were in charge of the leases, it would seek the answers on behalf of the tenants, they said.
Council member Frank Miller and Jerome said Snappy Tomato, for example, approached The Commons Board about getting streetside signage to increase its customer traffic but was told it wasn’t the board’s responsibility.
“Let people who do these things on a regular basis do the job,” Miller wrote in an email.
The city has a contract with REI of Indianapolis to manage the two city-owned parking garages, council members said. REI is in charge of management, maintenance and leasing of spaces in the parking garages on Second and Fourth streets.
Council member Tim Shuffett said he views the parks department staff as maintainers of parks facilities, not property managers.
The city should focus on its core responsibilities, which include public safety, public health, public recreation and economic development, council member Jim Lienhoop wrote in an email.
“To expect someone from one of those groups to also act as a property manager for the rental of retail space is misguided,” Lienhoop said.
A professional real estate management firm with experience in commercial rental activities should be hired, Lienhoop said. That rental agent should receive and account for the tenants’ rents, remit those rents to the clerk-treasurer’s office and report regularly to the Redevelopment Commission, he said.
No less than once per year, the clerk-treasurer’s office should confirm to the Redevelopment Commission that it has received the rents shown in the agent’s reports, Lienhoop said.