This Sun Journal photo from 2017 shows the foundation of an apartment building at 106 Bartlett St., which was a concern at the time for Lewiston Code Enforcement. The city has formed an ad-hoc advisory committee to revisit a proposed rental registration program. (Sun Journal file photo)

LEWISTON — A new committee will go back to the drawing board on a proposed rental registration program in Lewiston, after some landlords questioned the initial framework during a City Council workshop last month.

The council voted unanimously last week to create an ad-hoc advisory committee on rental registration, a system that would charge multiunit property owners an annual fee to fund greater city code enforcement efforts.

According to City Administrator Ed Barrett, the long discussion and lingering questions following the recent workshop led the council to start over.

Barrett said Wednesday that the ad-hoc committee is being formed to identify what the objectives of the program are, and to “identify the best mechanisms to accomplish those.”

Mayor Shane Bouchard sent a list of committee appointees to Barrett this week. In an email to the committee members, Bouchard said, “I am sure most of you know that I am of the opinion that a true fee based rental registration program is anti-business and unnecessary. My expectation is that this committee will look at creative ways of achieving the program goals without further burdening Lewiston landlords with additional expenses. I believe we have some of these solutions are already in place, however need to be better utilized.”

The Lewiston Area Public Health Committee, which supports the program, worked with city staff to come up with the initial framework. That included an annual $36 fee per rental unit for landlords with buildings with more than two units.

Landlords would pay the annual per-unit fee and submit contact information for a city database in case of emergency.

At the May workshop, many pointed to Portland, where the system established after a deadly fire has experienced “growing pains,” including a lack of consequences that led to fewer landlords registering rental units.

A number of landlords said the fee amounted to another tax for property owners, most of which are small businesses.

Those speaking in favor said similar life-threatening fires in Lewiston in 2013 highlight the need for more accountability from landlords, and that rental registration programs have been effective elsewhere.

Supporters included landlords, including Jay Allen, a downtown building owner who spoke during a subsequent council meeting, stating the $36 annual fee “isn’t high enough.”

But, the committee will revisit even the basic components of the original proposal, including the fee structure and how the funds would be used.

The initial proposal estimated that annual revenue from the registry would pay for about 2½ new code enforcement positions.

“They’re not going to start with preordained notions,” Barrett said. “It may come back in a wholly different form.”

Barrett said the response last month made it “clear to me there were multiple objectives that people had, but I’m not sure those were clearly laid out and analyzed.”

Gil Arsenault, the former longtime director of planning and code enforcement, argued during the May workshop that rental registration programs hold every landlord to the same standard.

“If you’re a good landlord, it doesn’t help you if your neighbors aren’t doing the same thing,” he said.

Despite the fresh start for the program, city officials seem to agree that a rental program — or something like it — is needed in Lewiston.

Lewiston’s comprehensive plan, known as Legacy Lewiston, calls for such a program, stating that it’s a “tool for identifying and remedying dangerous code violations in rental properties.”

During the City Council meeting last week, when the committee on rental registration was formed, the council also adopted a list of its goals and priorities for the next two years.

Included in the list is pursuing a rental registry program through a task force “to define, evaluate, determine resources needed, and recommend whether or not to implement a program of some type.”

According to Barrett, the questions facing the committee will be to decide what the city wants to accomplish in its code enforcement efforts, and what resources are needed from the program.

He said if the city’s goal is to receive better contact information from landlords, “what are the strategies that could get us there?”

The committee has been given a deadline of Dec. 31 to come up with a plan for the council to look at. Barrett said the first meeting will likely take place next month.

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