Service Agent Ordinance Divides Salisbury Council

SALISBURY – The City Council stood split on Monday over the decision to require vacant properties to have a service agent within Wicomico County or within a certain radius around town.

The proposed ordinance states, “If the owner of a vacant building is not domiciled in Wicomico County, Maryland, the owner must have a designated agent for service of notice of violation and process by the city, who is a permanent resident of Wicomico County, Maryland. The agent shall not be a tenant of the owner. The agent must be an individual who is designated in the owner license application form with the city.”

Council Vice President Gary Comegys said he is concerned over limiting the ordinance to Wicomico County.

“If I live in Delmar, Del., I live closer to Salisbury than if I live in Willards,” Comegys said. “If this agent has to reside specifically in Wicomico County, why couldn’t they live in Somerset County. I’m wondering why that was chosen instead of a radius of some kind, like within 30 miles.”

Neighborhood Services and Code Compliance Director Tom Stevenson explained this piece of legislation runs consistent with Salisbury’s residential premises. The rational is if the city pays for a summons service outside of Wicomico County there is an increase cost so the ordinance would reduce costs.

“It costs more for us to have summons service outside of Wicomico County, in fact we pay twice as much,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said that it would cost around $65 as opposed to $32 if the agent lived within Wicomico County.

Comegys said that by restricting the ordinance to Wicomico County the city would be limiting businesses.

“We’re saying that because you live eight miles away and if you live in another state that you can’t do business in the city of Salisbury,” he said.

City Attorney Paul Wilber explained the ordinance is only defining a service agent as opposed to a property manager. The agent would receive notices for the vacant property rather than take on the responsibility as the property’s manger.

Comegys asserted that a property manager who lives outside of Wicomico County would hold the responsibility for the vacant building and should be the one who receives a notice of an issue or an emergency, rather than the notice go through a service agent first.

“They have to go find somebody that lives in Wicomico County to take care of something that they are already taking care of,” Comegys said. “We shouldn’t be doing that. If they live within a reasonable distance, then we should allow them to be the ones being notified.”

Stevenson said that the city spends about $7,000 a year on summons services and if the ordinance were to expand outside of Wicomico County then that amount has the potential to double.

“What we’re trying to do is have somebody within Wicomico County that we can serve a summons too,” Stevenson said. “Where we run into a problem is when we have to go outside of Wicomico County because there is an increase in cost for that…it is just a way for us to have a boundary and it is consistent with what we have done.”

Council President Louise Smith said her concerns lie with having the city become more business friendly.

“Some of these commercial properties that are vacant it is not by their own doing it is because of the economy…we should be looking at avenues to be business friendly, especially when we’re looking at commercial properties and their already suffering anyway and I think it may have a chilling effect on commercial properties,” she said.

Stevenson said that the main purpose of a service agent is from a public safety standpoint.

“What they are actually doing is buying some insurance,” he said, explaining that the vacant property owners who register the property and a service agent the information will be provided to the city’s police and fire departments.

Stevenson added, “If they were to unfortunately have a fire in a vacant building, the fire department would be aware of the fact that there shouldn’t be anybody in the building. So there are some benefits to this program.”

Councilwoman Terry Cohen supported the ordinance as written.

“This isn’t for the purposes of a referendum on whether or not we should have a property registration program or not,” she said. “Many places do and it has many benefits to health, safety, and the general welfare of the public, which is why they are done in the first place.”

In response to Smith’s notion of the city working to become more business friendly, Cohen said that it “isn’t that big of a deal.”

“It’s just a standard operating procedure to make sure there is an effective beneficent way of notification particular in the cases of summonses,” she said.

Comegys motioned to okay the ordinance to “move it along” but wants staff to return with different options in language and the costs incurred with those options, for example changing it to within a 30-mile radius of Salisbury instead of just Wicomico County.  His motion passed in a vote of 4-1 with Smith opposed.