AUGUSTA — City councilors adopted an emergency bedbug ordinance Thursday to give city officials the tools and rules they said they need to fight and prevent infestation of the hard-to-remove biting bugs from housing in the city.

As an emergency measure, the ordinance takes effect immediately, will be in place for only 60 days, and required a vote in favor by at least six councilors.

Councilors passed it unanimously, 7-0, despite concerns from the property manager of two boarding houses that were infested with bedbugs, who said the emergency has been addressed, and other concerns from a certified entomologist and pest control worker who said the ordinance places the burden of dealing with the bugs only on landlords, not on tenants.

City Manager William Bridgeo said a bedbug infestation at the two Water Street boarding houses prompted him and other members of an impromptu task force that formed last week to propose an emergency ordinance to enable the city staff to take stronger enforcement action to prevent the spread of the insidious biting insects.

“What we have available for tools right now is almost nothing, either in state law or city ordinance,” Bridgeo, before the ordinance was approved, said of rules governing what landlords are required to do when bedbugs are discovered in rental housing in the city. “I thought we had residents in our community who were at risk, and somebody needed to step in.”

The ordinance gives landlords responsibility for having a pest control agent treat bedbug infestations. Landlords would be required to submit a plan, after consulting with a pest management professional, to decontaminate the dwelling unit, the people living there and their personal belongings, and provide a bug-free place for tenants to live while their apartments are being decontaminated. If the city deems the planned abatement measures insufficient, the city may require additional action. Landlords also would be responsible for all costs of decontamination of tenants and their belongings.

If a landlord fails to comply with the ordinance’s requirements to deal with bedbugs, the city could enter the building, remove the bedbug infestation and recover the costs of doing so by assessing a special tax on the property, to be included in the owner’s next property tax bill, or place a lien on the property.

City officials who entered two buildings at 382 and 384 Water St. last week reported seeing an infestation of bedbugs in common areas and in individual units, including a shower floor, bedding, and furniture covered in dozens of the bugs and their exoskeleton shells.

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

Bridgeo said the landlord of those properties, 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.

Karla Lilley, office manager of River City Realty, said no emergency exists because the company already had a licensed pest control company spray chemicals in the infested buildings on Saturday. She also criticized the city for not including a landlord on the task force that drafted the ordinance, said city officials are not qualified to determine the adequacy of treatment plans, and the ordinance — unlike state law — puts the burden of the cost of getting rid of the bugs on landlords alone, even when tenants don’t cooperate with efforts to get rid of them. She also said bedbugs don’t cause diseases or deaths, as other insects such as fleas, ticks and mosquitoes can do.

Councilors and Bridgeo noted that the council will consider a more permanent ordinance and it should be put in place by the time the 60-day emergency ordinance expires. They said the proposal is not perfect and changes can be made, with input from pest control experts and landlords, in the meantime.

“I don’t see this an issue between landlords and tenants,” Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said. “At this point, this is so bad the entire city is at risk. They can be spread to schools, businesses. I don’t feel like I’m protecting just the tenant. I’m protecting all of the citizens of the city.”

Stephen Langsdorf, city attorney, said state law gives tenants the right to take legal action to force their landlords to address bedbug infestations, but many tenants aren’t able to take that action.

“You’re dealing with tenants who, very often, aren’t at all sophisticated and who feel intimidated going after a landlord, and may be one step away from being homeless,” Langsdorf said. “And this situation was extreme. Not one or two bedbugs. Hundreds, thousands, of bedbugs were in these buildings.”

Bridgeo said he heard, anecdotally, one or more other landlords with buildings in Augusta also might have a bedbug infestation in their buildings.

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, Langsdorf, a representative of the 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.

Mike Peaslee, a certified entomologist and technical manager for Modern Pest Services, said the ordinance probably was well-intended, but it has multiple flaws. He said there is no established industry method for decontaminating a person of bedbugs; the ordinance removes all responsibility for bedbugs from the tenants who can contribute, or even cause, the problem; it could force landlords to move tenants in bedbug-infested buildings to other, “clean” buildings, which could be costly and make the problem even worse; and the ordinance in general is overreaching and too broad. He also said it is impossible to say, for sure, where an infestation started.

“I think it is well-intended, but there are serious problems with it,” Peaslee said of the ordinance.

Tenants’ duties, under the proposed emergency ordinance, would include promptly notifying their landlord when they know of 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.

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

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj