Hillsboro City Council’s street and safety committee met Friday evening to resume discussions on a proposed “meth house” ordinance that has been met with contention by a number of local property owners, as well as committee chair Justin Harsha.
As written, the proposed legislation is “in favor of the City of Hillsboro for abating the effects of methamphetamine and similar drugs production on property within the City of Hillsboro.” Mayor Drew Hastings said the legislation “puts the onus on the landlord to vet tenants more,” as the proposed ordinance outlines the fees involved in the cleanup process.
(For full text of the proposed legislation, click here.)
Harsha and his fellow council committee members, Tracy Aranyos and Ann Morris, discussed their thoughts on the proposed legislation before opening the discussion to the approximately 20 landlords, Realtors and other interested parties in attendance. Harsha asked the crowd, “Is there anybody here that likes this legislation? Anybody at all?”
“No,” several audience members said, as no one raised their hands.
“My problem is with no regulations or guidelines – the EPA doesn’t have a law, OSHA, the state doesn’t have a law – there’s nothing that gives a guideline as far as what a cleanup is and what you have to do,” Harsha said. “My contention is if we go into this, how are we going to regulate it? There are no laws to go by. I think it’s going to bring up lawsuits against the city. I think in order to do that, we’re going to have to hire an expert, and there’s going to be a lot of costs involved to get this all together.”
Aranyos called the situation “a catch-22.”
“We can’t solve the problem, but we do need to do something,” Aranyos said. “I don’t want us to tack on a special penalty or anything. It just comes down to being reimbursed.
“If we do nothing and make everyone happy, it’s going to eventually turn into where … the city’s going to end up paying for all the cleanup because no one’s doing anything. That’s going to cost taxpayers.”
Morris spoke in favor of the ordinance from the perspective of a landlord.
“We rent properties also, and I feel very responsible for whoever lives in my rental,” Morris said. “I think that’s what this is kind of geared toward, just so the out-of-town people that own properties that are landlords care about who lives in their rentals and check that out.
“If there’s a meth person or meth problem in there, that is their responsibility either to not rent to them or to clean it up, and if the property owners get tired of renting and going through these rules, then maybe they should own properties in other cities. Generally, mostly people we are talking about don’t live in this town, they maybe don’t even live in this state, but they are renting properties in Hillsboro.”
Morris said that she is also conducting research to show “how many renters vs. homeowners are the ones getting arrested for these drug problems.”
“The actual ordinance here in front of us is dealing with the cost of an unauthorized spill, release or discharge,” Harsha said. “I think this, more than anything, is kind of geared toward the initial cleanup – the police at the scene are using their manpower to take the chemicals away.
“My stickler is the safety and service director is talking about safety, and this is talking about money. I think we need to narrow it down to what everyone’s real intent is. Are we looking to get back some money from all their officers using their means to clean this up, or are we actually looking to make something safer for the city? That’s kind of unclear in my head, and it was first stated by Drew Hastings that this was to tackle a drug problem. This isn’t going to tackle any drug problem, as far as I’m concerned.”
Morris and Aranyos disagreed, saying “it would to a point.”
“It’s not going to address a drug issue,” rental owner Frank Schoolcraft said. “It’s a fact.”
“I don’t think it’s a fact because it hasn’t happened,” Morris said.
“You talk about landlords have to vet, have to vet, have to vet, have to vet,” Schoolcraft said. “At the last meeting, it was stated that –”
“And you don’t own property in town, right?” Morris asked.
“Does that matter?” Schoolcraft asked.
“I just was asking,” Morris said.
Aranyos said it didn’t matter and told Schoolcraft to continue.
“It was stated that it’s typically not the tenant, and you said to do background checks. There is no way you can do a background check on a prospective tenant that includes the entire family and anyone they might know,” Schoolcraft said.
“What research have you done that you know it’s not a tenant?” Morris asked.
“That was stated at the last meeting,” Schoolcraft said. (At the regular January meeting, council president Lee Koogler told council members that as a lawyer, he frequently sees cases where drug dealers or manufacturers are “not even tenants.”)
“There’s no research,” Morris said.
Schoolcraft informed council of an alarm system called a MethMinder that he thought would be a better alternative to the ordinance.
“It’s a monitor that detects the chemicals inside the unit,” Schoolcraft said. “If somebody comes home tonight and decides they want to cook meth and that product is in the unit, this system will send a silent alarm notifying the owner and the police that this activity’s going on inside the house.”
Schoolcraft suggested that the city work with landlords on grant proposals to fund MethMinders for rental units.
“If you can enforce people to put it in, like the out-of-town owners,” Morris said.
“Is it fair it to just throw a blanket over them and say just because you don’t live in Hillsboro, you don’t care?” Schoolcraft asked.
“I’m throwing a blanket over myself also. I’m responsible for who lives in my properties I rent out,” Morris said.
Local rental property owner Tricia Collins and Realtor Rusty Fite pointed out that under state law, landlords cannot violate tenants’ privacy.
“You cannot tell them who they can bring in and out,” Collins said. “If you suspect it, you have to go through the court system and get them out. You can’t just pop out and say ‘you’re out of here.'”
“We know you can’t control that it happens,” Aranyos said. “We’re talking about after it happens, the cleanup’s there. We’re trying to make the accountability for the cleanup and not just leave it for the city where if we do nothing, we have to clean everything up. The responsible property owners at the last meeting all agreed they were already doing this. We’re not penalizing anybody.”
Schoolcraft returned to the MethMinder suggestion, saying that if tenants know that such an alarm is present, they will be “less likely” to produce meth in the rental.
“What’s this downside of this that you don’t like?” Morris asked, regarding the proposed ordinance.
“The way you’re going about trying to pass this ordinance, which puts the burden on the landlord,” Schoolcraft said.
“But you don’t rent to drug people anyway,” Morris said.
“Tenants can go bad,” local Realtor Robyn Coomer said. “You can vet a tenant and they go bad, and yet the landlord’s stuck with this ordinance. It’s not the good landlords that’s the problem. It’s the bad landlords you’re after, but if you pass it, it includes the good landlords, too.”
Fite said that his problem with the proposed ordinance as written is that it “has no controllable cost,” so the landlords will not be able to have a say in how the city’s cleanup of properties is performed and how much it costs.
“They’re just going to hand you a bill,” Fite said. “Why should we be responsible? What if I go in and they’re cooking three or four pots and there’s more cleanup?”
Mike Brown, who along with his wife owns Springhill Rentals, read a prepared statement with his views.
“As a landlord of nearly 30 years, I have always been as vigilant as the law allows in the restriction of those who are found or have a known reputation with any form of drug abuse, the making or distribution thereof,” Brown said. “Even with the best of research, we are unable to stop some of the undesirable people from renting because we only have a limited ability to search through their information. Often we find our hands tied, for proof is needed, not just suspicion. That being said, as soon as I can remove them legally, I do.”
Brown said that he does agree that the problem needs to be addressed and that landlords who ignore the issue need to “assume responsibility,” but that he doesn’t agree with “placing the blame” on landlords who are already being responsible.
“You cannot legislate moral conduct or pass laws on those who are criminal-minded,” Brown said. “Why do you want to place this financial burden upon law-abiding citizens? Do not place the blame on those of us who are doing our best with the limited rights we are afforded.
“If we are going to be responsible for this and their further actions, are we responsible for their domestic violence? Their alcoholism? Their drug abuse with heroin and everything else?”
Brown’s statement was met with the only applause of the night.
Along with Schoolcraft, several others presented research from other areas and suggestions on how to make positive changes locally that would not involve the proposed ordinance.
Local Realtor Mark Wilson said that he appreciated the city’s attempt at finding a solution to the drug problem. He suggested penalizing landlords who “habitually rent to people that break the law,” instead of targeting all landlords.
“I think if you have a person who habitually rents to people that breaks the law, that property owner ought to be held responsible,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that he believes that he, and others, need to be held accountable, though “nobody in this room here is really the problem.” He encouraged those in the room to keep an open mind because “we do need to clean it up.”
“I think that trying to deal with this from the cleanup costs is probably the wrong way to go, because I do understand the uncontrollables,” Wilson said. “I do think that something probably ought to be done, because it’s all for the betterment of the community. The less dysfunction you have, the less illegal activity that you have, the better community you have and the better real estate market you will have.”
Harsha said that he liked Wilson’s idea and would look into it.
“Everyone knows that I really didn’t like this [ordinance],” Harsha told Wilson. “I like the direction you’re going, though. It focuses a little bit more to the problem, instead of just everybody. I don’t like legislating everybody.”
Coomer brought an example from Oklahoma where four city councils enacted legislation to require a prescription to purchase Sudafed.
“I think the ultimate goal for the city is to get rid of these thugs living next door,” Coomer said. “We do our cleanup, what we have to do, but we have to continue to do it as along as these thugs are there. Perhaps trying to eliminate the possibilities of them cooking meth – get rid of the ingredients, make it harder for them to obtain – I thought it was kind of a great idea.”
Coomer also suggested organizing a coalition to educate youth about meth use and to “fight these people away.”
Collins said that she agreed with Coomer and suggested a “neighborhood watch” system where landlords could help each other in reviewing prospective tenants, along with law enforcement. Brown said that he was concerned that state laws on privacy would limit their ability to do so. Another local rental property owner in attendance, Luke McKellar, spoke to The Highland County Press after the meeting and said he was in favor of forming some type of coalition as well.
“As a landlord and a business owner, one of my greatest concerns is that someone will cook meth in one of my properties,” McKellar said. “I want to provide a safe environment for my tenants. I don’t need another law to tell me that.
“Penalizing landlords and property owners for a problem created by addicts won’t even start to solve the meth problem in Hillsboro. The solution to the meth problem in Hillsboro isn’t more law; we need to change the people and solve the problems that are causing people to turn to meth.”
McKellar said that he would be willing to work alongside local politicians, fellow landlords, law enforcement and members of the community to brainstorm the idea.
“As a community, we need to group together to fight the meth problem,” McKellar said. “More laws aren’t going to change criminals’ behavior. We need to address the root of the problem, not penalize small business owners struggling to get by.”
Local business owner and property owner Terry Collins presented an idea for the city to implement a better system for background checks.
“I scour the internet looking for a dependable, legitimate site to do background checks,” Collins said. “Perhaps you could create a parameter, offer us a background check within reason. For those of us who are legitimate and doing our due diligence who trying to screen these people, go ahead and have a system that we go through.”
Collins said this method could give the city an opportunity to alert local property owners with “red flags” if they find any suspicious activity in prospective tenants’ backgrounds.
Hillsboro pastor Denny Riddell suggested a better rehabilitation program in the county, as those leaving the jail “have no place to go except the place they got arrested.”
“We’ve got to clean up the people,” Riddell said. “They’ve got to be worked with, cared for and taught how to get a job.
“The problem is not the landlord. The problem is the drug abuser and the person making the meth.”
Harsha said that they would “go back to the drawing board.” Morris said they would take everyone’s ideas into consideration.
“Whatever you do draw up, I’d like to see more specifics in it, and the thing that I didn’t like in this ordinance is all the way down, it said ‘the responsible party, ‘the responsible party,’ ‘the responsible party,’ and at the bottom ‘the responsible party’ is the property owner. I didn’t cook the meth. I didn’t smoke the meth. I just moved them in,” Coomer said.
Harsha encouraged the crowd to attend future committee meetings. The meeting adjourned following a motion by Aranyos to keep the issue in committee and work with city law director Fred Beery on a new draft.