Too often, officials say, Reynoldsburg code-enforcement officers have a difficult time finding a property owner to hold responsible.

In an effort to tackle problem properties, Reynoldsburg City Council is expected to begin discussing legislation this spring that could require registration of all rental and vacant property in the city.

Council has moved its annual recess from August to April because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. When they return, council members are expected to take up two pieces of legislation first discussed during a March 9 work session.

Council discussed the laws, presented in draft form, that attempt to "find ways to be more aggressive with code enforcement," said Chris Shook, city attorney.

Reynoldsburg often has "difficulty staying in touch with the property owner. We're trying to expand the tools in the shed," he said.

The legislation aims "to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the residents of Reynoldsburg by establishing minimum standards governing the maintenance, appearance and condition of all rental housing properties, to impose certain responsibilities and duties upon owners and operators; to authorize and establish procedures for the inspection of rental housing properties; to provide for the issuance of rental certification; to establish a fee schedule for inspection; to authorize the vacation or condemnation of dwelling structures that are unsafe or unfit for human habitation; and to fix penalties for violations of this chapter," according to the draft presented March 9. "Rental housing with code violations are a risk to new development, housing stock, property values, public health, safety, and welfare in the city of Reynoldsburg."

The proposed registry would cost property owners a one-time fee of $75 for each dwelling unit up to four, after which it decreases to $50 per dwelling unit. They would be required to have a local "designated agent" the city could contact in case of violations, Shook said. The "one-time fee is meant to defray the administrative cost" of maintaining the registry.

Under the proposal, the registry would be administered by the public-service department, which also oversees code enforcement.

Although all rental property owners would be required to register, it's not likely to be used to target minor violations like trash and overgrown grass, which are violations typically caused -- and remedied -- by the tenant.

Ohio law requires owners of residential rental property to register a contact agent with the auditor of the county where the property is.

In Franklin County, the annual registration is free, but the auditor's office in 2018 raised the fine for failing to register rental properties or update contact information to $150 per year.

Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Marietta, Nelsonville, Oxford, Painesville, Sandusky and University Heights are among the Ohio cities with some form of additional rental-registration requirement.

Shook said Reynoldsburg's proposed rental fee is similar to that charged by Gahanna, which enacted legislation last year.

"One of the things that we wanted to look at is what other municipalities are doing. We're actually kind of behind the times when it comes to this ordinance," Shook said. "We're on the lower end of the spectrum of what most cities are doing."

Reynoldsburg investigates more than 1,000 code violations each year, with about 75% being trash and grass offenses, officials said.

In 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, only two cases were issued citations that made it to mayor's court.

The city has two code-enforcement officers and is working to hire more after council last year increased the budget. The city plans to spend about $25,000 annually on new cloud-based software that allows code-enforcement officers to use tablet computers to instantly upload photos of code violations and provide better tracking and response time.

Bill Dorman, public-services director, said he meets with code-enforcement officers weekly.

"The biggest issue right now is trying to track down owners," he said. "What's great about this is that it requires having someone locally that you can talk to."

Keith Benner, a member of the city's planning commission who owns seven rental properties in Reynoldsburg, said he appreciates the "sincere attempt" to clean up the city but said it should be done through better code enforcement, not a rental registry.

"Anybody who owns a rental unit in this city should be registered with this city," Benner said. "But it's almost like we have a program looking for a problem. Why we should tax landlords to raise money to do this is beyond me. Why just rental properties? Why isn't this a code-enforcement problem?"

Revenue generated from the registration fees would be "quiet money" because most landlords "don't vote here so it's no big deal," Benner said. "But I just don't think it's fair."

A second piece of legislation is aimed at vacant homes, properties that attract crimes, including "human trafficking and substance abuse," Shook said.

If approved, it would "establish a program for identifying and registering vacant buildings. This registration is to be used as a tool to protect and preserve our neighborhoods from becoming blighted through the lack of adequate maintenance and security concerns at vacant structures. The city of Reynoldsburg believes the presence of vacant buildings can lead to neighborhood decline, create public nuisances, contribute to lower property values and discourage potential buyers from purchasing a home or business in neighborhoods with vacant properties," according to legislation presented March 9.

It would require property owners to have a "security plan" for the property and keeping trespassers out, Shook said.

It also would require interior and exterior inspections and impose a fee of $200 in the initial year of registry. Fees would increase by an additional $200 for each year the property remains vacant, to a maximum of $1,000 annually.

"The intent is to raise funds for administrative staff to oversee this program, but more importantly, to deter vacant properties in the community," Shook said. There is no "hard figure" on the number of vacant properties in Reynoldsburg, but it's "much, much more than we would like."

Ward 1 councilwoman Shanette Strickland said she has received calls about notorious properties in her neighborhood.

"It is a problem in our city, and ... I want to make sure that our residents and our neighbors know that we are taking this seriously," she said. "We have to have this addressed as soon as possible because it is a danger to our community."

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