Software issues slow down Watertown’s rental registrations

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WATERTOWN — It’s been slow going for the first four months that the city’s rental registration program has been up and running.

So far, 184 landlords have submitted information about their rental properties since the program began Jan. 1.

“Rental registration is off to a slow start,” City Assessor Brian S. Phelps said earlier this week.

Former City Councilman Stephen A. Jennings spearheaded the legislation that City Council members approved. He also tried unsuccessfully to convince them to establish a rental inspection program.

Landlords will have until June 30 to sign up for the rental registration program that will help the city get a handle on its 6,000 apartments.

Landlord Donald “Ozzie” Osborn isn’t sure exactly why other owners of rental property have not been bothered to sign up for the program. Before he did, Mr. Osborn was concerned that it was going to take a lot of time to do it. That wasn’t the case, he found out later.

Mr. Osborn, who owns three rental units in the city, is urging other landlords to register their properties.

“Get it done,” he said.

At this point, Mr. Osborn said it seems landlords are under the impression it’s too time-consuming to register, they don’t believe in having to do it or they believe it could lead to rental inspections, which landlords vehemently opposed when the registration was first proposed.

The subject came up earlier this week at the city’s housing task force meeting when members discussed the pros and cons of the rental registration program.

Housing committee members say the city should initiate a campaign to educate the public about the program.

But city officials have been experiencing major obstacles with software that the rental registration program will use to collect information about properties, Mr. Phelps said.

The city purchased the software from Accella Software for $21,286.80 from a $149,492 state grant to help the city deal with vacant and abandoned houses. Software problems are also plaguing the startup of the city’s new vacant-house program.

At this point, the city can just accept rental registration applications online from landlords.

When the software problems have been worked out, information gleaned from the registration program will help the city keep tabs on who owns rental properties and how to contact them.

Landlords will be required to submit information including the names of property managers and how to contact them regarding properties whose owners live outside Jefferson County. The city will find out just how many out-of-town landlords own rental property in Watertown, Mr. Phelps said.

Once all the software kinks have been resolved, code enforcement employees can put the information on tablets while working in the field.

Housing task force member Lance M. Evans, executive officer of both the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors and the St. Lawrence Board of Realtors, wanted to know what kind of penalty landlords will receive if they don’t register their property.

So far, the legislation doesn’t include a fine for not registering.

Meanwhile, the status of the registration program is in doubt, especially with the pending departure of City Manager Sharon A. Addison on July 1, Mr. Phelps said.

Once Ms. Addison leaves City Hall, it will be up to the City Council to decide the direction of the program, Mr. Phelps said.

There isn’t any money in the city budget for it, a city employee isn’t assigned to work on the program and “it does not appear to be a priority,” Mr. Phelps said.

But Mr. Osborn insisted that city officials need to keep tabs on abandoned and vacant houses. And landlords need to help them.

How to sign up

Landlords should go to the city’s website and look for the “Departments” heading, scroll to Code Enforcement and slide over to “Rental Registration.” That’s where you’ll be instructed to create an account and fill out an application. It asks several questions, including your address and the number of units you own.

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