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Commentary: Andrew Steele: Local government restrictions under consideration in Indy

Updated: January 25, 2013 1:50PM



A bill introduced in the state House of Representatives would undo one of the more widely discussed changes to city government in recent years — the fee and inspection regime regarding rental housing units.

Among other things, House Bill 1313 says a local government cannot impose “a fee or other assessment for any purpose other than fees relating to the construction of a rental unit.”

A number of municipalities around the state, including Crown Point, have imposed such fees, to pay for required inspections.

The idea is to protect renters by getting inspectors into residences to identify problems and code violations in a more efficient manner than they’ve been in the past. Apparently there have been enough complaints and problems that city officials felt a need to be more proactive about it.

An inspection regime costs money, though, and the method of financing chosen by the city (and others who’ve adopted similar laws) was the increasingly popular “user fee” — the people benefiting from the service are the ones who should pay for it.

My bet would be that city officials imagine the inspection fee as a fee on landlords, but of course this isn’t the way it plays out. The cost is borne either directly or indirectly by tenants, whether they want an inspection or not. Even the building registration fees are utlimately a shared expense of landlord and tenant.

My sense would be that HB 1313 reaches a bit far into the affairs of municipalities for it to become law. It’s not clear why fees related to this type of activity should be banned by the state rather than governed by local governments. But we’ll find out soon enough whether the landlord lobby is stronger than local government’s.

Meanwhile, it’s worth considering the way these kinds of programs are financed. Generally with any sort of law enforcement program, a large group of people are paying for the transgressions of a small minority.

So the full group of landlords/tenants is paying for an inspection regime intended to identify that small number of code violators.

It’s logical, but it, like everything else in life, presents a slippery slope that we should all be aware of. The creation of these fee-for-service regimes will always make sense to the majority imposing them on the minority. Your benevolent government just trying to help you out. And somebody has to pay for it.

It changes the “we’re all in it together” calculus of normal taxing-and-spending, and removes the “cost” from the cost-benefit analysis for most people. You could go on all day coming up with ways to spend other people’s money that would benefit them, but these fee-for-service models that charge fees to a full group, but only provide a service to a small minority of it, are something to keep a skeptical eye on.

Another bill in the house, HB1243, deals with the issue of public safety workers serving on county or municipal fiscal bodies.

One provision of it provides that full-time firefighters and police officers serving on a council can’t vote on the budget or salary ordinance for that department. Instead, the council would have to separate the department’s budget from the rest of the budget, and vote separately on them.

This falls squarely into the “too clever by half” category. The idea these budgets would be separated, and considered in isolation from one another, isn’t realistic in the least.

We’d end up with the appearance of propriety but nothing more. What’s necessary is to decide whether or not it’s appropriate for a municipal employee of any sort to serve on that municipalities fiscal authority.

It either is or isn’t. There’s no in between.



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