By TED CARTER
Pearl has begun criminal prosecution of five owners of multi-family rental complexes who do not register their properties and pay per-unit fees of $25 for 2015 and 2016.
Police have issued citations to the property owners in what is seen as the first steps to enforce a 2015 rental housing ordinance that in addition to registration fees requires rental property owners to provide tornado shelters, install fire sprinklers in units and place high-volume warning sirens within the complexes.
A Jackson lawyer for the apartment owners has renewed efforts to persuade federal Judge Henry T. Wingate to rule quickly on a request for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the rental ordinance. Attorney Steve Smith filed for an expedited ruling two months ago and planned to file a new one this week.
“There’s a lot more urgency now,” said Smith, who specializes in representing builders and commercial property owners.
Wingate held hearings on the injunction request in early December.
A ruling against Pearl could spare the property owners from prosecutions that could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, penalties and possible jail time, Smith said.
He noted the penalty for not registering is $350 a unit, as well as a late fee of $10 a unit.
What it would not do, he said, is influence the outcome of an eventual hearing on the overall legality of the rental housing ordinance.
For the past couple of months, city officials have prohibited Entergy and other utilities providers from serving apartment units that have been vacated in rental complexes yet to register.
Albert Moore, owner of Colonial Terrace Apartments; and Steve Maulding, owner of Bavarian Garden, Pearl Manor and 468 Place Townhomes, must appear in Pearl Municipal Court on April 22.
April 26 court appearance dates have been set for the owner of Fox Run Apartments, Sara Edwards; Southwind Apartments, Liza Smith; and Village at Crossgates Apartments, Sheryl Montrief.
Trial on the criminal charges for all five complex owners is set for May 31, according to Smith.
Pearl’s mayor, City Council and city attorney say the property mandates are critical to protect against the potential for mobile home parks and multi-family complexes to hurt the value of nearby properties. City officials also cite public safety, especially in limiting loss of life in natural disasters such as tornadoes.
Smith calls the mandates an illegal tax that singles out a particular class of landowners while excluding other commercial properties, single family subdivisions and public buildings.
“This is nothing but a tax they collect and put in the general fund,” Smith said in an interview last week. “It is blatantly unconstitutional and unlawful.”
The unspoken motive, he claimed, is to “get minorities and low-and-moderate-income people out of the city.”
Smith made the claims of illegality in a bill of exceptions filing that required Pearl Mayor Brad Rogers to sign and submit to a Circuit Court. Rogers refused to sign within the required 10 days, arguing Smith wait too long to seek challenge the rental housing ordinance through a bill of exceptions.
The Circuit Court ruled for Rogers, thus forcing a state court appeal by Smith that is pending.
Pearl aldermen first voted in favor of the rental ordinance in 2013, but Smith argues in his appeal the ordinance did not become official until 30 days after the City Council published it in a local newspaper in September 2015. He said he filed the bill of exceptions three days after Pearl published the ordinance.
Meanwhile, the landlords recently hit with the Failure to Comply citations face huge financial consequences should they fail in their legal appeals.
First, to comply with the rental ordinance they must pay $25 a unit for each unit for 2015 and 2016. A complex with 200 units must pay $5,000 for each of the year, though Smith said units in the complexes owned by his clients range from about 30 to 80.
The storm shelters the ordinance mandated carry an estimated cost of $1,500 a unit, the interior sprinklers $9,000 a unit and the siren a cost of around $5,000.
What’s more, Smith said, is that annual inspections of the sprinklers in each unit will cost the complex owner $75 a unit. He called the inspections “warrantless searches.”
The fines faced by the landlords could easily put them out of business, forcing them to turn the properties over to Pearl through lien foreclosures, according to Smith, who emphasized the rental housing ordinance makes each day a violation exists a separate offense.
On the criminal penalty side, the landlord would face a fine of $300 to $1,000, 90 days in jail or both. This applies to each offense, Smith noted.
For civil penalties, a fine of $350 per violation is assessed, along with a $10 late fee.
In his plea for a quick ruling from Judge Wingate, Smith said that in addition to facing incarceration, the five landlords “are subject to hundreds of thousands of dollars of criminal fines per month.”
James Bobo, who has been Pearl city attorney since 1995, said in a 2015 email that he wrote the rental housing code after concluding city government had created a void in public safety through lax land-use policies. “Now, the City leaders could sit on their hands and hope the folks in apartment buildings don’t burn to death… or they could sit on their hands and ignore the fact that Pearl is located in one of the most active tornado alleys on the planet,” Bobo said in the email.
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