When the City Council considers passing new ordinances to regulate a specific industry or behavior, among the many things members have to consider is what it will cost to enforce the measure.
Even if the ordinance provides a much-needed regulation, cash-strapped city departments need some way to pay for the staff and equipment needed to enforce the measure. Without the staff to actually issue licenses or dole out penalties, an ordinance is difficult to enforce. So while it might be a good idea, for example, to set restrictions on condo conversions or crack down on false burglar alarms - two ordinances that recently came before the City Council for consideration - it also creates a need for increased funding.
To address that need, some ordinances outline fees for a certain service or behavior. Those fees, in turn, pay for the staff and equipment needed to enforce that ordinance. Henry Reimer, the city's director of inspections, said it has been longstanding city policy that departments try to recoup costs associated with a focused group of users - such as, for example, residents whose false alarms have cost the city money in police response time.
“The goal is that these programs will pay for themselves, will be revenue neutral, so that tax dollars don't have to go to support these activities,” Reimer said.
The condo conversion ordinance, which aimed to prevent the loss of affordable rental units to condo conversions and outlined measures to protect renters and condo buyers, would have required anyone who wants to convert a condominium to obtain the city's approval and apply for a permit costing $2,000 for the first unit to be converted and $800 for each additional unit. The City Council narrowly rejected the proposed ordinance at its Feb. 9 meeting. The $300,000-$350,000 the ordinance would have generated had it been in place last year would have been just enough to cover the costs of the three personnel the city would need to hire to implement and enforce the ordinance.
Another proposal, this one to recoup the more than $800,000 the city spends annually responding to false alarms, would charge residents a $15 annual fee and businesses a $40 fee for owning a burglar alarm. The $370,000 the fee is expected to generate would also be used to pay for additional enforcement staff. The City Council has postponed the issue several times after community members raised concerns about the fee at a Jan. 3 public hearing. It is now scheduled to take up the issue at a Feb. 28 meeting of the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee.
While it's clear that it costs money to enforce ordinances, several council members acknowledge that the question becomes what is a basic city service that should be paid for out of the General Fund and what is an enhanced service from which certain residents benefit and for which they should pay a fee?
Council Member Cam Gordon (2nd Ward), who authored the condo conversion ordinance, said it's a balancing act. He said residents should clearly not have to pay for very basic city services such as police protection or firefighting services. At the same time, he said it's a stretch to expect every resident in the city to pay street assessments for work done on just one person's block.
“It's a real struggle between how do we have enough revenue to provide the services and what's fair?” Gordon said. “It's really hard to know where to draw the line, and I think if there's too many little hidden fees, it's really hard for people to keep track of it and have any idea of how much they're paying for everything.”
Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) said he supported the condo conversion ordinance but isn't in favor of the false alarm fees. Deciding when to charge residents and businesses in the city fees rather than chalking the costs up to a function of city government depends on the situation and who is benefiting from the service, he said. Remington also acknowledged that charging fees for city services is a more conservative philosophy, but it's one he said the city's tight budget depends on so property taxes don't become an even more difficult burden on middle- and low-income families.
“There are fine lines,” Remington said. Gordon said while he doesn't have any plans to bring back another version of the condo conversion ordinance in the near future, he feels confident the discussion has increased awareness and support for preserving affordable housing and maybe creating more.