Carroll Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown tried to put more bite into the county's Minimum Livability Code for rental housing yesterday. But his colleagues made it toothless.
"The way it is now, only landlords and tenants can complain" about housing code violations, Commissioner Brown said. He endorsed a staff proposal that would allow county officials to accept complaints from town officials and neighbors of adjacent properties.
"I would like to try the recommendation for a year and see what happens," Mr. Brown said in a staff meeting yesterday.
J. Michael Evans, director of the county Department of General Services, had drafted the rejected recommendations.
"The mayors are unanimously in favor of including their offices in the complaints," Mr. Evans said.
But Commissioners Richard T. Yates and Donald I. Dell rejected the proposal on a 2-to-1 vote, saying that it would infringe on the rights of property owners.
Mr. Yates said expanding the complaint policy would encourage spitefulness and could put landlords out of business.
"I know what vindictive neighbors can be," he said. "We would also be driving out affordable housing."
Mr. Dell said the anticipated increase in the number of complaints "would have landlords shutting down houses TTC because they couldn't afford to maintain them."
He said the county code is working and needs no adjustment.
"It is incumbent on the tenant to report violations," Mr. Dell said. "If the tenant is satisfied to live with a hole in the plaster for $300 a month, then so be it."
New Windsor Mayor Jack A. Gullo Jr., who for months has been advocating stronger enforcement of the county code, said in an interview later, "I am not advocating infringement of property rights. But, I am advocating giving people decent, safe places to live."
Mr. Brown also wanted county inspectors to look at the entire dwelling and address other violations they might find during an inspection.
County inspectors often report code violations that are more dangerous than a hole in the wall or broken window.
"If we see faulty wiring in the basement, with the current policy, we have no authority to check for faulty wiring in the attic," said Ralph E. Green, chief of the Bureau of Permits and Inspections.
Mayor Gullo suggested that a complaint-driven system offers little recourse for tenants.
"The only complaints accepted would be from landlords, who don't complain, or from tenants who will get kicked out, if they complain," he said.
In a town where about 25 percent of the housing is rental units, Mayor Gullo hears complaints constantly. But he said the present policy leaves him powerless to deal with them.
"The county is turning a blind eye to what the law intended," Mr. Gullo said. "The commissioners' idea is, if you don't see it, you don't have to deal with it."
The county code says that if a housing inspector "has reasonable grounds to believe a violation has occurred, the code official shall cause the premises and equipment thereon to be inspected."
Mr. Dell said at the meeting complete inspections in response to every complaint would be impossible with present county staffing and unfair to property owners.
He said the towns have more enforcement authority than the county.
"The towns should do this on their own," he said. "We would get in a jam quickly if we start telling the towns what to do."
Mr. Gullo disagreed. If New Windsor would draft its own ordinance and hire an inspector, he said, "the town would become the most progressive policy maker with the smallest population and budget."
Mr. Evans told the commissioners that state law requires the county to enforce the livability code.
"Our alternative would be to have the state enforce the code, but the state agency is practically defunct," he said. "It has jaws, but no teeth."
Mr. Brown tried one more tack before Mr. Yates called for a vote. "Let's keep it to complaints from landlords and tenants, but let's enforce the code completely," he said. "Landlords shouldn't be able to hide violations from us."
Mr. Gullo contended that, by ignoring its own ordinance, the county has placed itself in an untenable position.
"I hope their legal staff is looking into this," he said. "Any law the county has on its books should be enforced.
"If the commissioners are uncomfortable with the livability code, they should amend it legally with properly advertised public hearings. They can't change the policy to suit themselves."