Report On The Meeting Of The Town Services And Outreach (TSO) Committee, March 24, 2022
Present: Dorothy Pam (Chair, District 3), Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Andy Steinberg (at large), Anika Lopes (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5).
Staff: Paul Bockelman, Town Manager; Athena O’Keefe, Clerk of Council; Rob Morra, Building Commissioner
Also: Lynne Griesemer, Council President; Mandi Jo Hanneke, Town Councilor at large; Michele Miller, Town Councilor District 1; Marion Walker (SP) Chair, Board of License Commissioners
- Discussed proposal to increase fees for rental permits. Discussion will continue at the next meeting.
- Delegated authority for permitting long-term temporary parking for lunch carts to the Board Of License Commissioners
- Decided not to act on a suggestion to close parts of North Pleasant Street to vehicular traffic during the summer to facilitate pedestrian friendly events
Rental Permit Fees
Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke spoke to a proposal to change rental permit fees that would include instituting a fee for inspections. The proposal had also been discussed at this week’s Town Council meeting (3/21). The proposal, a temporary measure until the bylaw covering rental permits can be rewritten, suggests keeping the $100 fee for any rental property of 6 units or less that is owner occupied and increasing the fee to $250 for larger or non-owner occupied parcels. The additional revenue will hopefully help in supporting greater enforcement of the bylaw. The measure is co-sponsored by Councilors Hanneke, Michele Miller (District 1), Pam Rooney (District 4), Cathy Schoen (District 1), and Jennifer Taub (District 3). Following a lengthy discussion, the committee decided to seek additional information before making a recommendation. The matter will be discussed further at the next TSO meeting.
Shalini Bhal-Milne (District 5) asked how these new fees compared to the fee structure in other college towns. She thought the fees seemed too high for small-holding landlords.
Hanneke responded that the sponsors are leaning toward a flat fee because it is easier and thus less costly to administer. However, many towns and cities charge according to the number of units on a property. Examples include New Haven, Connecticut and State College, Pennsylvania Some towns or cities, such as Burlington, Vermont, charge less per unit if the number of units is high. The proposed fee increase here would not affect the current rental bylaw, which is based on the landowners themselves conducting their own self-inspections and reporting their assessments of themselves to the town. Currently, there is no inspection fee. The proposal suggests that the owners of units that have been subject to complaint pay an inspection fee of $150.
Most towns require that the town do the inspection. One option is to have the rental permit fee cover the cost of the inspection, with separate fees for failed inspections and re-inspections. Other towns charge for each inspection separately.
Building Commissioner Rob Morra noted that the town does not currently have the staff needed to enforce building codes for rental properties.
Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) asked for clarity on the need for increased staffing and how increased revenue from the new permitting fees would relate to staffing. Will it be used to hire people to support/administer the rental permit program?
Bockelman replied that the town does not budget for prospective income. Instead, he said, “We usually give a new framework like these proposed fees a year to see what kind of income we can expect. Then if we wanted to use those funds for staffing, we’d have to come back to the council and ask for a specific appropriation.”
Devlin Gauthier then asked how things would change under the new permitting program?
Morra said he sees the proposal as the first step in moving away from being a complaint-only inspection program. He noted that most complaints come from properties with between one and four units, not the larger ones.
Bahl-Milne asked for more information about complaints , such as where they come from and what they are about.
Morra said that prior to the pandemic, the town fielded about 350 to 400 formal complaints each year “but a lot of stuff gets taken care of informally.” Mostly, complaints come from either neighbors or from parents of the tenants, and involve building conditions, things like health and fire code violations. One of the big successes of the permitting program has been improvement in the appearance of properties. Andy Steinberg (at large) noted that another significant issue involves how to enforce owners to register their rental properties. Often, a complaint leads to the discovery that the property has not been registered by the land owner.
Anika Lopes (District 4) asked, as the only renter present, for the committee to consider that increased fees might trickle down to the tenants.
Miller responded that the proposed fee increases are modest compared to other communities, and that she has drawn up a table chart comparing fees for different towns.
Bahl-Milne suggested that committee members submit their questions in writing to the sponsors so that they can be taken up at a future meeting. “What is the problem we are solving for right now, before we rewrite the bylaw, and who is going to be most impacted by these changes? Since we’re not changing the inspections, why are we changing the permit fees?” She said that several of her constituents have written to her with concerns about the possible impact of rental fee increases.
Hanneke countered that the fees have not been increased in eight years. “Our costs rise,” she said. “When you don’t increase fees for seven years but employees’ costs rise continuously, then there’s a disconnect between the original intent and what is happening now.” Hanneke asked if anyone else had heard from constituents voicing concerns about this matter. No other councilors had had this experience.
Morra said, ” We set the rate intentionally low when we began the program with the intent of revisiting it after it was in place for a while. Also, we’re setting the table now for getting us to the system that we need. We currently have a very weak enforcement section and we need to work toward improving that.”
Miller offered to pull together more data showing how Amherst compares to other communities.
There was some discussion about whether the committee wants to have a public forum about this, with Bahl-Milne arguing that there was an obligation to do so because people were concerned and had not had sufficient opportunity to weigh in.
The discussion will be continued at the next TSO meeting.
Lunch Carts / Food Trucks
The discussion, which concerned lunch cart/food truck use of parking spaces for greater than 14 days, centered on who has jurisdiction over these long-term requests. Marian Walker, Chair of the Board of License Commissioners (BOLC), said that the authority for licensing food carts and for temporary use of the public way used to be under the jurisdiction of the select board. Under the new town council form of government, the BOLC has authority to license food vendors, but does not have authority over licensing temporary use of the public way. The BOLC asked the Town Council to move this authority to the BOLC. Currently the Town Manager has authority to approve short-term use of the public way and Town Council (thru TSO) has jurisdiction over long term.
TSO voted unanimously (5-0) to recommend to the Town Council that they change the policy for control and regulation of public ways, delegating to the BOLC authority for long-term temporary parking reservations for lunch carts.
Bockelman expressed his desire to make the process of permitting as efficient as possible. He asked TSO how much authority they felt comfortable in delegating to another body.
Pam said, “We have an awful lot to do already. Let’s give it away. If it doesn’t work well, we can revisit it.”
Proposal to Close North Pleasant Street To Vehicular Traffic
The committee took up a discussion of a proposal made to the Community Resources Committee to close part of North Pleasant Street during summers and weekends, and to continue outdoor dining.
Bockelman reported that closing North Pleasant Street is not possible because it is required for emergency vehicles. When it is closed off for the BID block party, alternative (and complex) arrangements have to be made for emergency vehicles.
Bahl-Milne asked if there are other places that could be blocked off to create more pedestrian access to restaurants, as Northampton has been doing to add to its outdoor dining spaces.
Bockelman replied that they have looked into it, but there aren’t really any good options in downtown Amherst. Regarding outdoor dining, he noted that Article 14 (permitting outdoor dining) has been extended and the town is working closely with the BID to figure out where it’s working, but not a lot of restaurants here are interested in pursuing outdoor dining this summer.
Bahl-Milne asked if it is possible to close North Pleasant Street for an event other than the BID block party, that is, more than once during the year.
Bockleman said that this is possible but noted that the BID did not want this at all last year. There is a lot of work for the organizer in closing down streets and the organizer would need to be able to make the case that closing down a street would benefit abutting businesses.
Bahl-Milne then asked about the prospect of doing a welcoming event for students.
Bockleman said that the Chamber of Commerce already organizes Adventure Into Amherst, which is a lot of organizational work and needs a sponsor. Town Hall can’t take this on, he said.
TSO decided to convey to the council that no changes involving closing the public way for summers and weekends are supported at this time. Steinberg asked that the final report from TSO convey the burden that such changes would impose on the fire department as well.
No one requested to speak at public comment.