GOSHEN — Landlords in Goshen pushed back against a proposed $55 rental unit fee that city leaders hope will keep an inspection program afloat.

City Council introduced the inspection fee Tuesday but declined to take any action on it after several landlords questioned the fairness of it and the need for an apartment inspection program at all. The proposal is meant to make up for the loss of a $37 registration fee, which was reduced to $5 after a recent state Supreme Court decision.

Goshen has had its inspection program since the late 1970s, which allowed it to be exempt from a 2014 Indiana law capping such fees. Justices decided the exemption is unconstitutional.

The proposed fee would generate $93,170 annually, which would make up for the 90% hit to the $78,000 that was previously being collected. It would also go part of the way toward covering the city’s actual expenses.

Mayor Jeremy Stutsman said the new fee amount was chosen as a negotiable starting point, after asking city staff how much was needed to cover the majority of program costs.

Discussion among council members centered on the need for the program, how to fund it and how to make sure tenants are notified of inspections ahead of time so their rights aren’t violated. They suggested changes they might like to see but ultimately voted to table the proposal to give the public more time to weigh in.

Among those who spoke up at the meeting was Charles Wysong, who said he’s a third-generation landlord in the city. He called the proposed fee unfair because it represents different financial burdens to bigger and smaller rental companies.

He said he takes care of his tenants and asked why the city can’t just deal with landlords who are known to be a problem. He also questioned why, if the program is meant to protect the public, the city doesn’t also require owner-occupied houses to be regularly inspected.

Rental company owner Dave Blessing remarked that the better landlords were being painted with the same brush as the worse ones. He suggested starting an anonymous tip line for tenants having problems instead of holding inspections.

Dave Wickstrom said he rents properties in the area but doesn’t have any in Goshen because of the inspection program. He also said the city should focus only on landlords who are known to have problems.

Stutsman responded to that common refrain by pointing out that, if a city is going to have such a program, state law requires inspections to be done across the board.

Resident Angie Saunders said she’s in full favor of having an inspection program because it gave her peace of mind when she used to rent an apartment.

“At the end of the day, landlords are in it to make money, or they wouldn’t be charging rent,” she said. 

Also Tuesday, council voted 4-3 to find Lippert Components Inc. in substantial compliance with the terms of a 2013 tax abatement on a $10 million investment in new equipment. The decision means company representatives will not have to address employment numbers at a later meeting, as council had required before allowing the phase-in to continue in 2017 and 2018.

The company’s latest report shows that no jobs were added in 2018 and only 1,026 employees were retained. Under the terms of the abatement, the company expected to retain its 1,078 existing employees at those plants and to add another 376 after installing the equipment.

“376 jobs is not equal to zero jobs,” Councilman Adam Scharf remarked. “It seems obvious.”

He and council members Julia Gautsche and Julia King voted against finding LCI in substantial compliance. They cited the job numbers and the locations specified in the abatement.

Council President Brett Weddell pointed to the letter that Lippert sent in advance of the meeting and said it was pretty self-explanatory. It notes that the total salaries for the 1,026 employees who were retained is $50.2 million, which is $4.7 million higher than the initial estimate.

It also notes that many employees were simply moved to plants outside of the three listed in the tax abatement, and that the company exceeded the projected value of the project. Weddell remarked that it would be insulting for council to tell a company where to put its employees.

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