WATERVILLE — Mayor Nick Isgro vetoed a resolution to form a housing study committee to examine aspects of the city’s housing needs Wednesday, saying those promoting the group have “insidious” intentions to enact a landlord registry that would involve fees for rental property owners.

But councilors are pushing back on that characterization, saying the resolution, which the City Council passed unanimously Tuesday evening, was not looking to create a registry, which was floated as a possible outcome last summer.

The resolution stated the panel’s purpose would be to investigate methods and tools to help Waterville’s code enforcement officers ensure that businesses that rent property for housing meet laws and ordinances that the town, state and federal government have in place for health, safety and construction standards.

Additionally, the committee would look at the problem of vacant and abandoned properties, and, working with code enforcement and other departments, learn what is being done to investigate what other communities have done to address the need for safe housing.

In his statement vetoing the resolution, Isgro called the committee a redundancy in government, saying he believes the pre-selected members of the committee wish to delve into “perceived issues that may erupt between landlords and tenant.” He said there are already several departments within municipal government that inspect many of the rental properties in the city.

Waterville was ranked first recently on a list of “Maine’s Hottest Towns of 2017” by Maine Life Real Estate Co. for having the largest increases in the number of home and condominium sales compared to the previous year, according to data from Maine Real Estate Information Services Inc. Waterville showed a 29.27 percent increase in sales from 2016 to 2017. When asked if that kind of growth warrants having a housing committee to ensure safe options are available for people coming to live in Waterville, Isgro said the availability of safe housing was a priority and that’s why the city made more funding available to hire a second code enforcement officer for inspections while the Colby College residence hall is being constructed downtown.

Councilors Jackie DuPont, D-Ward 7, and Winifred Tate, D-Ward 6, responded to the veto by saying the creation of a committee is necessary to address longstanding housing problems in the city.

“The proposed bipartisan committee to study housing issues reflects both the priorities of the city’s strategic plan and the concerns of community members about safe housing and abandoned properties,” Tate said in a statement.

DuPont also cited the city’s 2014 comprehensive plan, which identified housing as a critical issue, and added that better tracking of housing safety issues has been an ongoing need. She cited a 2013 fire that ravaged a Main Street building and recalled that the discovery that the building’s sprinkler system was not working was a galvanizing point for the council, but she added that the issue of housing safety had been debated long before she became a councilor.

“The formation of this subcommittee was the next logical step after many community meetings with critical stakeholders, including landlords. To do nothing is not a solution — we need to be proactive and forward thinking in addressing ongoing housing issues in our community,” DuPont said in a statement.

In his statement after issuing the veto, Isgro wrote that he did not believe this was the proposed committee’s final goal.

“Given what has been heard and seen at city council meetings and elsewhere, it is my belief that this committee’s true goal is far more insidious,” he said, later adding in a tweet that he thought the practice was authoritarian.

The mayor was referring to a landlord registry, which Paula Raymond, a Waterville resident and member of the South End Neighborhood Association, presented to councilors in September.

As part of such a registry, rental property owners would be obligated to register each of their rental property units with the city and pay a fee for each unit.

A landlord registry was implemented in 2015 in Portland as a way to improve the city’s tracking of safety issues. The fee charged to register is used to fund the office that oversees rental property inspections and complaints. Landlords have to pay the city as much as $35 for each unit.

According to Jackie DuPont, Raymond’s presentation to the council used Portland as an example of what a rental registration might look like and how it might work using a $100-per-unit fee as an example.

DuPont said it would make sense if the committee went in this direction because it was in line with the goals and policies chapter of the city’s comprehensive plan. The plan states that the city review codes and ensure provisions are in place for it to take enforcement action that would include examining the feasibility of instituting a housing inspection program, with inspection fees providing a possible source of funding to offset the cost of administering the inspections.

It also states that the city would work in conjunction with existing agencies, such as the Waterville Housing Authority or the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, in order to avoid duplication of the effort.

However, DuPont said nothing was ever set in stone. An ordinance to enact a registry was never put before the council.

She said the overarching purpose of the committee — no matter the shape it takes — would be to improve the city’s tracking of safety issues and to improve housing stock.

“The intention of the housing subcommittee is clear in its purpose: to work more closely with the Code Enforcement Department to find solutions, and identify resources to assist in their efforts,” she said.

Council Chairman Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, said Wednesday that he believed there was misunderstanding surrounding the housing study committee. He said many landlords attended the Tuesday meeting speaking against the creation of a landlord registry, including apartment building owner Chris McMorrow and Sherwood Booker, of Brown House Properties. Soule said a registry was not the intended outcome of the committee but that people conflated it with the earlier conversation in the summer about the registry. Soule said councilors assured the landlords at the meeting that a registry was not the sole purpose of creating the housing committee.

Soule thought a way forward to create the committee and compromise with Isgro would be to take the landlord registry and fee out of the conversation altogether.

“I do think compromise can come from this,” Soule said. “I think that the committee has good intentions and the landlords made it loud and clear that they don’t want a registry.”

Isgro said Thursday he would be willing to compromise by including language that forbids the creation of a registry, but he really would like to see the committee’s scope narrowed down to dealing with abandoned properties.

“That’s an issue we do have, but I don’t think it’s the city’s job to interfere with landlord and tenant disputes,” Isgro said.

If the council comes to a compromise with the mayor, or if the council overrides his veto, the members of the housing study committee would include Paula Raymond, of the South End Neighborhood Association; public members Erik Thomas and Bob Murray; three city councilors; a representative from Waterville Housing Authority; and landlord representatives.

In addition, city staff members Garth Collins, Daniel Bradstreet and Ann Beverage would participate as ex-officio, nonvoting members of the committee.

DuPont said after the council’s meeting Tuesday that she was approached by landlords and residents who voiced interest in volunteering on the committee.

“It is a great opportunity and worthwhile effort to work in tandem with downtown’s revitalization,” DuPont said. “I look forward to working on these issues with the bipartisan subcommittee, approved unanimously to work toward a safer and more prosperous Waterville.”

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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