Brunswick panel calls for apartment building inspections

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council on Monday showed interest in implementing an apartment building inspection program.

The idea was first pitched in 2011, after four multi-unit buildings burned in a matter of months, leaving one person dead.

But the proposal failed amid budget troubles and push-back from landlords, according to Margo Knight, chairwoman of the Downtown Brunswick and Outer Pleasant Street Corridor Master Plan Implementation Committee.

The expressed need for the program, however, continued to exist in that committee’s master plan, adopted in January 2011.

“Recognizing that poorly maintained housing puts life and property at risk … a town-wide inspection program of all structures with two or more rental units should be implemented,” the plan states.

After a fire at 20-24 Noyes St. in Portland killed six people in 2014, and prompted the city to implement an inspection program, Knight said MPIC decided it was time to bring the proposal back to the council.

The program Knight proposed Monday is an updated version of the one the Fire Department submitted to the council in 2011.

It calls for a new position at the Fire Department to inspect multi-unit buildings, to be entirely funded by fees paid by landlords, Knight said.

There are just under 1,200 units in 194 multi-unit buildings in Brunswick, according to Fire Department data provided to MPIC. Multi-unit buildings are defined as those with three or more units.

The position, including salary, benefits, and equipment, would cost $68,000 a year to fund. A preliminary estimate calls for a fee of about $57 per unit to cover the cost of the inspector.

But, Knight said Monday, that number is far from set in stone.

“We are not the experts,” she said. “We are (asking) the Fire Department to come up with that work.”

Knight said Monday that members of MPIC attended a regional landlord meeting in 2011 to discuss the program proposal.

“The landlords said, ‘No problem, as long as they didn’t have to pay for it,'” Knight said.

Councilor Kathy Wilson, another MPIC member, argued that “many other towns and cities do this.”

“The fact that landlords would rather not pay … well, of course,” Wilson said.

Brunswick’s plan is “the same in execution, if not size,” as Portland’s program, according to the committee.

Portland’s new inspection program, which is called the Housing Safety Office, will have a $416,500 budget funded by landlord fees. It was established in July.

Councilors seemed generally supportive of the idea, and council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman asked Town Manager John Eldridge to contact staff at the Portland program.

Eldridge agreed to move forward, “following a model that puts the cost on a fee basis, rather than a property-tax basis.”

Portland offers discounts to its $35 fee, based on fire-suppression features like a full sprinkler system and smoking bans. The minimum fee is $15.

In an interview Wednesday, Knight said MPIC has discussed a similar discount structure in committee meetings.

Although the program in theory would be revenue-neutral, to authorize the fire department position the council would have to approve it in the department’s 2017 budget request.

For the Fire Department, “It’s now about going through the budget process, reporting to the council how this could be funded, and why it’s important,” Knight said.

Knight said she hopes the council will endorse the position. The time is right, she said, especially in the aftermath of the Portland fire.

“I think that it … shows that the town is serious about safety for its citizens, that we can say if a fire happens, a major destructive fire, that we have a program in place to make sure tenants have a way out,” she said. “Let’s not wait until something like (Portland’s fire) happens in Brunswick.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

The building at 45 Maine St., Brunswick, which housed businesses and apartment units, was destroyed by a three-alarm fire in April 2011.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.