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Mayor urges stronger enforcement of Carroll's rental code


Mayor Jack A. Gullo Jr. carried New Windsor's housing complaints right to the County Commissioners yesterday. On a large map of the town, the mayor had placed 32 pins showing every exterior violation to Carroll's rental housing code he could find.

"I drove around for a half-hour with the livability code in hand," he said at the quarterly mayors' meeting. "We are a ship in distress. All towns have an interest in how this comes out."

Mr. Gullo called for action on the county Minimum Livability Code. All he received was a promise of expanding the county policy to allow for more complaints, but no more inspections.

"All we have is a written version of the current complaint-driven policy," said Mayor Gullo, after he reviewed a draft of proposed amendments to the law.

That is not nearly enough for Mr. Gullo, who heads a town where 25 percent of the housing units are rentals. And, the county is not adhering to the terms of its own law, Mr. Gullo said.

"We are diluting the effect of a law we have on the books," he said. "Now, we are discussing a policy of how not to enforce that law."

Four months ago, Mr. Gullo raised the issue of stricter code enforcement with the commissioners. In response, the county expanded its policy and will accept written complaints from the mayor or any other official.

The policy does not allow for a field inspection in response to every complaint -- an action that the mayor calls essential and entirely legal.

"The county has a mechanism, a law in place, to enforce the code," the mayor said. "We pay county taxes and this is a service we should get. Your inspectors are in a much better position than we are."

Later in the day, the commissioners reviewed a draft of recommended changes, proposed by J. Michael Evans, director of the county Department of General Services.

"We are recommending enforcement with more vigor, but without over-stressing manpower," Mr. Evans said.

The county would expand its "complaint-driven system" to include written reports of violations from tenants, landlords, any government agency or any occupant of nearby housing.

The landlord would have five days to address the complaint. Only when there is no compliance, would the inspector visit and examine the entire site for additional violations.

"Why wouldn't a landlord repair a torn screen or broken door?" Mayor Gullo asked. "It is to a landlord's advantage to fix an exterior violation, so an inspector doesn't come insideand find out the hot water heater doesn't work."

Without field inspections, the policy does not live up to "the spirit of the law, which is safe, livable housing," Mr. Gullo said.

Tenants are discouraged from making complaints out of a fear of reprisals, the mayor said.

"If a complaint comes on the interior, the landlord knows immediately who made it," the mayor said.

County officials are reluctant to hire more inspectors to carry out the letter of the law, said Commissioner Richard T. Yates.

"It took Gullo a half-hour to find 32 violations," Mr. Yates said. "How long will it take our people to address that same number?"

If the inspector looks for other violations and grades them for seriousness, Mr. Evans said the county will not have to increase its inspections staff. That still is not enough, the mayor said.

"We must send a message to landlords that we are paying attention to the housing they are providing," Mayor Gullo said.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell urged moderation.

"There has to be a balance," Mr. Dell said. "We will do what is required for safety and health of tenants, but 100 percent compliance would be overkill."

Mayor Gullo said the county "cannot turn a blind eye to its law. If we are not happy with a law, we use the system to change it. We don't circumvent it and figure a way to enforce it to our liking."

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown called the draft a "good compromise between our limitations and what the mayor wants." His colleagues called for further study.

"I am glad of the few steps forward," Mayor Gullo said.

"But, I don't feel this helps my citizens enough. I am disturbed because the draft doesn't say how the code will be adhered to without field inspections."

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