Bellingham council OKs reserve funds to start up rental safety program

City Council unanimously approved pulling cash from city reserves to pay for the first phase of a rental safety program.

The seven members voted Monday night, Jan. 26, to allocate roughly $107,000 for 2015 and about $59,000 for 2016 to the rental program from the city’s development reserves.

The program is planned to be self-sustaining once it is up and running, as property owners would be charged fees to register their rental properties and have them inspected once every three years.

Staff members plan to start rolling out the program this spring.

Part of the money will go toward paying a full-time office assistant to help the planning department get the program rolling. The money also will pay for software that would be used for online registration and mailings. An ordinance allowing for the funds allocated roughly $107,000 for 2015 and about $59,000 for 2016.

The money allows staff to perfect the software and roll out an informational website as planned by March 1, Sepler said. Mailings would then go out to property owners May 1, registration would open July 1, and the registration requirement could take effect and be enforced starting Aug. 1.

The rental safety program, which council initially passed in December, still needs to pass a third and final reading to go on the books as city code and be enforceable.

As of Monday, staff had estimates for three registration fee options the council might choose from:

• If charging a fee per unit, the cost would likely be about $10;

• if charged per parcel, closer to $25,

• or a hybrid of the two might be used, which could include a base fee of $12 and $5 per unit, Sepler said.

Sepler said planning department staff hoped to finalize the details about the other half of the program – an inspection requirement – in time for a Feb. 9 work session with the full council.

The inspection component would require regular checkups, likely once every three years, to make sure properties are meeting basic health and safety requirements.

Preliminary staff work showed inspections done by the city might cost around $80 or $90, and be required once every three years, Sepler said. Private inspection estimates needed more work, but the city might need to charge an administrative fee of about $40.

“One reason we’re holding on the inspection detail is we’re assessing how much automation will help us,” Sepler explained. “The reason we don’t have it before us is because we’re perfecting the $80 to $90 estimate. We’ll be meeting Wednesday to perfect the IT component.”