The city council postponed a measure to reduce fire inspection fees for multiple dwelling properties on Tuesday evening after the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) warned the distressed municipality could see a reduction in state aid if it moves ahead with the proposal.
Business administrator Nellie Pou said the state has said the city could lose the same amount of money in state aid that it intends to reduce by slashing the fire inspection fee charged to multi dwelling – three units or more — property owners.
“They reminded us that it was a violation of our MOU,” said Pou referring to the accord the city signs every year to receive millions in state financial assistance. “The state is saying at a time when they are providing transitional aid we cannot take the steps of reducing revenue when we’re in need.”
The city received $25 million in aid during the 2015 fiscal year.
Pou said the city collects $400,000 per year from charging multi-dwelling property owners $180 for fire inspection. The city council intended to reduce that annual fee to $105.
Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, thought the state’s was employing heavy handed tactics. “There’s no dialogue, there’s no exchange, there’s no communication other than ‘If you do it, we’re going to penalize you,’ that’s not what this country or democracy is built on,” he said. “This wasn’t a kneejerk reaction, this was in response to folks feeling they were being treated unfairly.”
“What’s being said behind the certain is that city of Paterson, your elected officials don’t have the necessary competencies to govern effectively,” said Morris.
Rafael Fontana, a three-family property owner, has been urging council members to revise the ordinance that he says is double charging homeowners. He holds that the DCA’s Bureau of Housing Inspection inspects multi-dwelling properties every five years whereas the city has been charging fees for inspecting it every year.
Fontana has said the city does not conduct the inspection every year charges for it. He has said the city is double billing its taxpayers to raise revenue.
The fire chief said inspections are done every year, said Pou. The chief said he has documents to prove as much.
“The fundamental argument here that something is broken,” said council president William McKoy. “We’re looking to correct a wrong not just to give a discount because we’re feeling generous.”
McKoy pointed out the city is not eliminating the fee, but is reducing it so that taxpayers are not subject to an excessive fee. “The flaw in the collection process was made very clear in that folks were paying an excessive amount for a service they were not getting direct benefit from and consequently the council is willing to reduce it,” said McKoy.
The council president and other council members have said they would like someone from the state to appear before the governing body to explain their position. “I’d like to see the DCA come here and tell us why we can’t move forward with this,” said Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman.
Pou said council members and the mayor will receive a letter from the DCA’s Division of Local Government Services director Timothy Cunningham.
The business administrator said the city could lose $200,000 to $300,000 in revenue if the ordinance is enacted. She said that hit would be made worse when the state reduces the same amount in transitional aid.
“Combining the two is a significant amount of loss of revenue,” said Pou.
“From the very first time this fee was instituted there have been complaints,” said McKoy. The council enacted the fee in 2010 which charges $180 for three family homes and adds $10 for each additional units.
“Please know while we are sensitive to the desire to provide appropriate and sustainable financial relief to property owners, we must also be mindful that historically, the multiple dwelling inspection fees represent a well-established, reasonable and standard business expense in maintaining a good quality of life as well as safe and clean living conditions in the city’s multiple dwelling housing units,” said Emike Omogbai, spokesperson for DCA, on Wednesday afternoon. “Paterson’s housing tenants deserve no less than such an environment.”
The council did not vote on the reduced fee ordinance on Tuesday evening. McKoy said it will be discussed during the September 22nd, 2015 workshop session. He urged property owners impacted by the “excessive” fee to attend the meeting to make known their concerns.