WESTMONT — Following a legal battle that’s lasted more than three years, Westmont Borough Council opted this week to repeal an ordinance that required annual fees from landlords and settle the dispute out of court.
In 2011, council decided to implement an ordinance that required all owners of residental rental property to pay a $50 registration fee for each unit within the borough, along with property inspections every three years at a minimum cost of $125.
In 2012, two borough landlords, Clifford Majercsik and Thomas Wiegman, filed a lawsuit to fight the ordinance, calling it “an unlawful and unconstitutional special tax” that served no justifiable purpose. The case went back and forth between the borough and the plaintiffs’ attorney, Lee Stivale of Media, with a two-day trial originally scheduled for February.
Ultimately, the borough’s temporary solicitor, Robert Shahade, pointed out ways in which the ordinance was redundant in comparison to rules the borough already had in place for rental properties. In a unanimous decision Tuesday evening, council opted to take the ordinance in question off the books and settle with the plaintiffs out of court, said council president Don Hall.
“Conceptually, it was a great ordinance, but practically, it became more of a burden,” Hall said, adding that he didn’t anticipate the degree of resistance from landlords.
Rich Hudec, executive chairman of the Greater Johnstown Landlords Association, said the organization has always recognized and respected the role of municipalities for landlords, but said Westmont Borough Council “overstepped by passing an ordinance that was much too costly.” One landlord in the borough paid more than $1,000 to comply with the ordinance, Hudec said.
With 320 rental units within the borough paying $50 in registration fees every year for four years, the borough likely pocketed $64,000 from these fees, before paying a secretary to file the registrations and keep track of which landlords had not complied with the ordinance, Majercsik said.
Westmont Borough has agreed to pay $18,000 to settle the lawsuit, Hudec said. Wiegman and Majercsik have agreed to give half of the total settlement to the landlords association to offset some of its legal bills associated with the process. The other half, Hudec said, will be distributed among borough landlords who filed a refund form for the registration fees through the association over the past four years.
Majercsik, who owns only one rental property in the borough, said he agreed to be a plaintiff in the case “because it was wrong.”
“The fees were extremely high,” he said. “The $50 registration costs were just ludicrous.”
Majercsik said he and Wiegman are pleased they were able to settle with the borough, but he’s disappointed the issue went as far as it did.
“We felt pretty strong going into this,” he said. “We’re happy we settled. It’s gone on long enough.”