Absentee landlords throughout Easton are in the crosshairs of Mayor Sal Panto Jr., who wants city council to craft plans to combat blighted properties next year.
Panto, participating in Wednesday night's Easton City Council meeting via telephone, said the coming year is a great time to start planning to pursue landlords who do not take care of their rental properties.
"It's a quality of life issue," Panto said. "I wish we could discourage apartments in Easton and charge landlords more. We have to be more aggressive in our rental housing program, but we have to look to 2015 (for funding) because it's been such a tight budget."
City administrators hastily put together a plan Wednesday at the behest of council to create a department to strictly oversee Easton's rental program in the 2014 budget, but Panto and the council elected to take a wait-and-see approach."
"I certainly have reservations about putting in a program created in 24 hours," Panto said. "We're going to add a person in April, take baby steps and see what the outcome will be, what we can do to absentee landlords."
Panto wants to hire a rental inspector in addition to the full-time code officer and an assistant who are currently in place.
City Administrator Glenn Steckman professed his expertise in ferreting out absentee landlords.
"I've done this before in other municipalities," he said. "We need enough time to notify landlords as to what we're doing, address problem properties and improve the overall rental stock in the city. "
Councilman Roger Ruggles said such a program is a vision for the future. "We'll see where it goes," he said. "Having this program running effectively is the best thing for the community. We want to be increasing the safety in the stock of apartments."
Meanwhile, council members balked at increasing the per-unit rental inspection fee charged to landlords to $80 per year. It will remain at its current $60 per year.
Later, council formally voted through a measure to increase the city's earned income tax for residents to 1.95 percent from 1.75 percent, with 0.05 percent of that hike earmarked for the Easton Area School District.
The EIT hike will generate $800,000 in revenue that will close a gap in the city's $32.27 million budget, which weighs in approximately $700,000 larger than 2013. The budget will hike taxes $100 per year for a city household earning $50,000.
The city's Home Rule Charter requires council to pass a balanced budget by Sunday, Dec. 1. Council's next scheduled meeting is Tuesday, Nov. 26, two days prior to the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
In other business, council and Panto agreed to utilize position attrition and other cost savings in the first quarter of next year to mitigate the loss of anticipating parking funds in the 2014 budget. City administrators wanted to hike garage parking rates to $3 per hour from $2 during peak summer periods. Steckman said advertising the fact that city parking garage rates are 50 cents per hour from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. could help generate additional revenue.
Council also approved a license agreement with the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority (LANTA) to construct 22 bus shelters throughout the city. Currently, there are only two LANTA shelters in Easton, according to Owen O'Neill, LANTA's Director of Planning.
O'Neill said the shelters cost $9,000 apiece. Three of the shelters will be in the city's historic district and will be designed accordingly, he said. All 22 shelters must pass the muster of city planners.