BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A Fort Madison City Councilwoman pushed back on an ordinance that would require residents to register vacant properties in the city starting in November.
At Tuesday’s regular meeting Councilwoman Rebecca Bowker said the ordinance, which charges a fee starting at $25 annually for a single family vacant home, is unfair to property owners who have well-maintained properties.
City Building Director Doug Krogmeier and Fort Madison Fire Chief Joey Herron said the new ordinance isn’t there to hinder responsible property owners, it’s to address the other properties that aren’t well maintained. Herron said you have to treat all the property owners the same.
“We’re just trying to address the problem for other folks in the neighborhoods with vacant homes that are deteriorating. We have to look at it from their side, too.”
Krogmeier said the program will be run in conjunction with the city’s current Rental Inspection program so registrations for vacant buildings would be required at the same time as rental registrations. Inspections of vacant property would take place annually and would be done by Fort Madison firefighters who would need to know the footprint of the buildings.
If insurance is carried on the property, registration fees are waived, however inspections will continue. After two consecutive passed inspections, self inspections by the owners would be permitted for the next two years.
Fees would double at the third and fourth consecutive years on the city registry and would then be capped at the fourth year level. The city is proposing to start the fee at $25 for a single-family home, but larger vacant facilities would incur larger fees. The fees are to cover costs of inspections and administration of the program.
Krogmeier said there are really good landlords in Fort Madison, but they are still in the rental program because you have to treat everyone the same.
“But our fires dropped drastically in rental properties when we started that program, because we were inspecting extension cords.”
The city has had to put out multiple fires in vacant buildings over the past five to six years and, in some cases, the city had to absorb the cost of cleaning up the property.
Mayor Matt Mohrfeld, who’s sat in on two public hearings the city held on the proposed ordinance, said it’s not perfect, but it will be another tool city staff has to help clean up the town.
“It’s not perfect, but if we don’t change, we won’t change. If we start looking at the solution, we all have to be part of it,” he said.
“You look at it as penalizing people. I look at it as people contributing to part of the solution. Yes, it’s going to take pride from all of us to do this. We don’t like to be told what to do.
“It’s not perfect people, but neither is having 500 vacant properties that are causing a public safety and public nuisance issue.”
Bowker said the city could use the nuisance ordinance to force cleaning up the properties.
“I just don’t understand why it can’t be addressed under a nuisance ordinance. If you look at the criteria about the doors and windows being boarded, why can’t we go after those properties under that. I don’t know why we have to create a new rule when there’s already existing things we can modify,” she said.
Councilman Tom Schulz said the vacant property ordinance eventually gives the city access to the properties.
“They can’t even legally walk behind somebody’s house to look at it and enter their property without a warrant,” Schulz said.
Krogmeier said another piece is the speed with which the city will be able to do inspections and keep an eye on property. He said now the city has to go through 3 to 6 months of court hearings at a minimum to gain access.
The ordinance was taken from a draft of a Clinton, Iowa ordinance, which City Attorney Pat O’Connell helped draft.
He said Clinton’s code resulted in a few complaints from people who thought they didn’t deserve to be on the registry.
“I would say that it’s providing a good accounting of where the potential problem properties are as sort of a precursor to future problems, and allows a proactive approach by staff to become aware of issues long before they become serious,” O’Connell said.
He said Clinton owners don’t get on the list unless there are already some code violations on record, like security issues, or squatters, and meets the other criteria specifics.
“I would say Doug is doing the right thing with this. I think it’s important, especially considering the older properties we have in town,” O’Connell said.
“Fort Madison is a river community similar to Muscatine, Clinton, Burlington. It’s got a lot of the same problems and it’s a way for Doug to be aware of what’s going on and be more proactive about it.”
The ordinance passed by a 6-1 vote with Bowker voting against it on the first reading.
The final fee structure will be set by a resolution of the council. The ordinance will still require two more readings and the new program wouldn’t take effect until November.
In other action, the council:
• voted 7-0 to approve selling lots at 2709 and 2713 Avenue J to Craig and Margaret Abolt in exchange for a permanent lease for construction work the city is planning.
• voted 7-0 to approve voter district changes for precincts within the city as implemented by the Secretary of State’s office.
• voted 7-0 to approve a property tax abatement for an addition to property in the 500 block of 33rd Street.
• voted 7-0 to appoint Jenny Devine to the Fort Madison Housing Authority until June 8, 2022.