AUGUSTA — City officials say a bedbug infestation at two Water Street boarding houses prompted them to propose an emergency ordinance to give city staff the ability to take stronger enforcement action to prevent the spread of the insidious biting insects.

City Manager William Bridgeo said the landlord of 382 and 384 Water St., River City Realty owner Larry Fleury, has been cooperative and the city is working with him and tenants to rid the buildings, tenants, and their belongings of bedbugs.

A tenant of an apartment at 382 Water St., Al Sugden, has scabs covering his arms and legs that he said are from bedbug bites. He said he went to the hospital because of the bites and was given some salve to put on them.

The Navy veteran said his mattress was infested with them and, even though his small apartment was sprayed with chemicals to kill the bugs and cleaned, he fears they’ll come back.

“They sprayed the whole building,” he said. “I think the bedbugs will come back. My neighbor, my friend, moved out. He couldn’t take it anymore.”

Bridgeo said a worker who was in one of the two buildings reported last week seeing an infestation of bedbugs to Rob Overton, a city code enforcement officer. Overton entered the shared common areas of the two boarding houses, such as hallways and shared bathrooms, and one apartment into which he was allowed by a tenant, and saw signs of the bugs. He returned with an official of the Maine Center for Disease Control to inspect the buildings and determined both were infested with bedbugs.

“They were throughout the buildings, in the common areas, hallways, the bathrooms and any rooms we were allowed to go into,” Bridgeo said of how widespread the bugs were in the two gray-colored boarding homes which, between them, have about 20 tenants.

Beyond the problems for tenants of those buildings, Bridgeo noted there is a potential public health threat in that, “if left unattended, you have the very likely possibility it’s going to spread.”

Photographs taken inside 382 Water St. last week show a shower floor, a table, bedding and other areas littered with dozens of bedbugs or their exoskeletons.

Bedbugs shed their exoskeletons as they grow, leaving the empty exoskeletons behind.

Bridgeo said he heard, anecdotally, another landlord with buildings in Augusta also might have a bedbug infestation in one or more buildings, but he declined to identify that landlord because that has not been investigated yet.

Fleury did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday. Bridgeo said Fleury has been cooperative and wants to rid the buildings of bedbugs.

“We’ve had cooperation from the landlord. I think he wants to remedy the problem,” Bridgeo said. “But you have to make sure it is done in a way that is effective.”

Bridgeo said it can be difficult and expensive to get rid of them.

“They’re insidious little buggers,” Bridgeo said. “And they’re an equal opportunity nuisance. You can go to a four-star hotel, flip the mattress and find bedbugs.”

Sugden said he’s been told he should buy his own chemicals and spray weekly to make sure the bedbugs don’t come back. He said his caseworker was trying to get him into different housing.

Two women, Andrea Anderson and Donna Dostie, were cleaning on Tuesday inside 382 Water St. They said that building and 384 Water St. already had been treated for bedbugs by professionals.

Bridgeo said one tenant receives General Assistance housing money from the city. He has authorized the expenditure of city money to help that person get decontaminated, buy new clothes and find a new place to live. He said that tenant doesn’t have to leave, but because of the bedbug infestation, the city will not continue to pay to house the person there.

Bridgeo said that’s the city’s only expenditure, other than staff time.

Bridgeo said a task force was formed to deal with the problem last week, and it met again Monday. Task force members include city codes and public safety personnel, attorney Stephen Langsdorf, a representative of Maine Center for Disease Control, the city health officer, the Fire Department’s medical officer, an attorney from Pine Tree Legal Services, Bridgeo and Ralph St. Pierre, assistant city manager,

Bridgeo said it became apparent to task force members that neither state law nor city codes provide sufficient authority for the city to take necessary enforcement action to ensure the proper steps are taken when an infestation is discovered.

He said the city’s codes do not address bedbugs specifically.

He had Langsdorf and Matt Nazar, development director, draft a proposed bedbug ordinance that he proposes city councilors consider adopting Thursday night as an emergency provision. That would require six votes, not just the usual majority, and would allow the ordinance to take effect Friday.

The proposed ordinance would assign landlords responsibility for having a pest control agent treat bedbug infestations. Landlords would be required to submit a plan to decontaminate the dwelling unit, the people living there, and their personal belongings. If the city determines the planned abatement measures to be insufficient, the city may require additional action to be taken. Landlords also would be responsible for all costs of decontamination of tenants and their belongings.

Tenants’ duties, under the proposed emergency ordinance, would include promptly notifying their landlord when they know or suspect an infestation of bedbugs in their dwelling unit, granting the landlord and pest control agent access to their unit for inspection and treatment, and taking all reasonable measures to eliminate a bedbug infestation.

Bridgeo noted the proposal, as an emergency measure, would be good for only 60 days. During those 60 days, the city probably would work to write a permanent version, a process that would include public hearings at which landlords and others could comment and point out potential flaws in the proposal.

“We understand we’re putting this in place quickly and it’s not going to be a perfect piece of legislation,” he said. “It is not our intention to put a law on the books that allows tenants to unfairly use it as a cudgel versus a landlord they’re not getting along with. Our intention is to give ourselves tools necessary to deal with an egregious situation expeditiously.”

Bedbugs, according to a bulletin by James Dill, pest management specialist, and Clay Kirby, insect diagnostician for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, are making a comeback in the United States.

The bugs are brown, flat and about one-quarter-inch long with a soft, rounded look. After a blood meal they are dark red, and larger.

They feed on human blood but are not believed to carry disease.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj