By Lynda Jensen
COKATO, MN More than a dozen landlords and residents attended the Cokato City Council meeting last Monday to protest an ordinance being proposed.
The ordinance being considered was meant to govern rental housing maintenance, which would introduce inspections and a $50 per-unit fee to landlords in the city over a five-year period.
The action was prompted by recent poor conditions of a rental apartment complex that was demolished. The apartment had numerous problems with it, and council members expressed the desire to protect renters from such conditions.
In the end, the ordinance was tabled, but not before a great deal of discussion and numerous comments from those at the meeting.
Landlords who attended the meeting described the ordinance as unwanted government intrusion and unnecessary.
Mike Housman, who lives in Dassel and rents out a house in Cokato, described the ordinance as an intrusion on a private transaction, saying that renters don’t need help with making decisions about where to live. “Sounds like socialism to me,” he said.
Landlord John Sundblad agreed, saying that the city was “totally over-regulating” the situation, and that all the other landlords shouldn’t have to pay for the mistake of one.
Landlord Cindy Luhman pointed out that state laws are already in place to protect renters, right down to dictating proper storm doors on the premises and repairs. “Why do we need to further this along with another level of government?” she asked.
Renter Diane Grangroth said she didn’t want an inspector to invade her privacy. “Why can’t I be a private citizen? Why come into my house?,” she asked.
Mayor Bruce Johnson noted that she isn’t the true owner of the property.
Johnson asked the crowd who couldn’t afford $50 over a five-year period, which amounts to $10 per year, and the crowd jostled each other to reach the podium.
Luhman pointed out that the city just removed a clause from its water policy that used to shield small apartment owners from excessive water bills, she said. The end result was that the city raised her water bill on short notice by 40 percent this past year. “Now, you’re asking me to raise my rent again,” she said.
“My margins are slimmer,” Luhman said. If her losses continue, she will end up listing her units for sale and getting out, she said.
Renter Rita Smith commented that wages aren’t very good in town. “I cannot afford the increase, as a renter,” she said.
Housman said that the attitude coming forth from the council over “only $50” was from a “true government socialist.”
Council Member Carl Harju said the city could get sued if someone was injured, but other landlords commented that the city might get sued anyway, if this was true.
Council Member Wayne Murphy observed that the fee would be a financial burden passed to tenants. “Landlords are doing everything they can,” he said.
Landlord Vern Vahlsing asked if the city was going to inspect houses for rent, too. He asked the council if it could simply address the problem properties rather than involve all landlords in the process.
Johnson protested that the recent apartment complex had an owner in Florida who left renters in scary conditions. “Even the water heater wasn’t hooked up right,” he said. “This is the only way we can get involved.” The city could have gotten involved sooner if an ordinance had been in place.
Council Member Gordy Erickson agreed, saying that the city has an obligation to make sure that renters are protected.
“They can report us to the State of Minnesota if they want to,” landlord Bruce Semke said. Once the city starts with a minimum fee, then this will go up, he said. And the economy is bad right now, he added. “We’re having a rough time.”
Murphy indicated that the ordinance wasn’t necessary.
“I hate to say this, but I agree with you,” Council Member Butch Amundsen said to Murphy.
“There isn’t a person in this room that I wouldn’t be proud to rent from,” Amundsen continued. He suggested tabling the proposal “until it was necessary to revisit the subject.”
Harju, who was in favor of the ordinance, told the crowd that each one of them were responsible for reporting conditions such as those that existed at the condemned apartment building, if the proposed ordinance wasn’t enacted. “We are lucky that no one was killed.”
The city did have the right, and should have taken action on that property, Murphy said. “We’re all guilty.”
It was unanimously decided to table the subject until further notice.
Council to look at water, sewer rates
The council will be reviewing its water and sewer rates, with a possible rate increase next year to accommodate “unexpected financial demands” from housing foreclosures, other vacant houses that are for sale, and personal hardships in the way of delinquent unpaid accounts certified to taxes.
Murphy suggested better communication with the public about the position that the city is in when it comes to its utility funds. “We have a lot of debt to pay,” he said.
Murphy also said he visited with a developer who asked how Cokato can justify its water and sewer access charges per lot (SAC/WAC).
Amundsen said the SAC/WAC was justifiable, and the council will review all of the water-related accounts in the future.
Odds and ends
In other subjects, the council:
• received a visit from Scout Pack 249, with five Scouts observing the council at work.
• prepared to certify about 50 delinquent water accounts to taxes, which is about the same as last year, Administrator Don Levens said. The amount certified to taxes last year was about $17,000, according to Clerk Peggy Carlson.
Those who owe money on utility accounts have until Thursday, Nov. 20 to pay the bill before the amounts are certified to taxes. Levens said he hoped the amount would be zero.
Johnson noted that the city is obligated to operate its financial affairs like a business. “If you don’t run it like a business, pretty soon you’re behind the eight ball,” he said.
• approved an engineering bill in the amount of $2,399 to Bonestroo & Associates related to storm sewer problems addressed near Klarsyn.
A problem arose when a contractor did not dig a storm sewer pond deep enough, nor big enough, to meet standards, according to a memo from engineer Eric Lembke of Bonestroo. It had to be regraded by the contractor.
However, in the process, an additional engineering fee was involved.
“They (Bonestroo) only did what we asked them to do,” Amundsen commented. “Bonestroo wasn’t there 24/7 OK?” he added.
“No, it’s not OK,” Murphy answered. “Why do we have the pay the engineer twice?”
• approved a low bid of $25,600 from Midwest Machinery for a John Deere 5095M tractor, to replace the current 2005 John Deere 210 (to be used as a trade-in).
The vote was 4-1, with Murphy voting against the purchase.
Murphy questioned Ken Bakke why Public Works needed that much power.
Bakke answered that the city is responsible for mowing holding ponds, the wastewater treatment facility, and other problem areas. In addition, the existing mower doesn’t have enough horsepower to operate the brush hog owned by the city.
Murphy suggested letting the weeds go on the holding ponds, to which Bakke responded that weeds in holding ponds make their way into the storm sewer and cause problems.
Murphy suggested planting alfalfa or something that would work to avoid all the mowing.
Bakke noted that the city has rules and regulations to comply with when it comes to that.
• approved a site plan and special use permit for Saunatec to allow construction of a 60-foot by 140-foot temporary cold storage unit made of steel and fabric for wood and carton products.
• reviewed a code of conduct and ethics that would pertain to conflicts of interest and city council members and staff, but noted that state statute already addresses most issues.
• approved pending claims, but noted there was a $95 bill from the city attorney that was from a letter forwarded by Murphy to the attorney.
Murphy didn’t realize that forwarding a letter to the attorney would result in a bill, he said.
It was noted that the “clock starts ticking” as soon as any correspondence is sent to the attorney.
• enacted the parking ban for the winter snow season, which means no parking is allowed on the street from 2 to 6 a.m.
• complimented the election judges for their hard work, taking care of long lines due to good voter turnout.
Capital improvement workshop to be Monday
The Cokato City Council set a special meeting and subsequent workshop starting at 6 p.m. tonight (Monday), Nov. 17
There are two items on the agenda:
• It will review the Community Education bylaws and joint powers agreement.
• The council will conduct a workshop on capital improvement subjects.
The public is welcome to attend for comment, including members of planning and zoning and the park commission.