WORTHINGTON — During a brief meeting Monday evening, the Worthington City Council approved the hiring of Ken Bickner, Heron Lake, to assist in revising the city’s rental housing ordinance on a contractual basis.

Bickner, who has a civil/environmental engineering degree, previously worked as a specialist in a healthy homes program in Linn County, Iowa, where he assisted in developing a rental home inspection program, inspected rental housing and pursued enforcement as needed.

City Administrator Steve Robinson said Bickner will be able to step in and help the city with the ordinance revisions, which were to be completed before the end of the year. The project was delayed due to staffing changes and the lack of personnel able to step in and do the work.

Bickner will be compensated at $40 per hour, and Robinson estimated he would need to work 30 to 40 hours per week for the next three months to complete the task. The compensation is in the 2022 budget, Robinson said, adding that Bickner is slated to start work Dec. 6.

The Worthington City Council suspended the rental housing registration and inspection program in February due to its ineffectiveness. The plan was to have staff analyze the policy and redesign a program focusing on protecting the health, safety and welfare of the city’s residents.

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The ordinance was written with a focus on preventing and controlling communicable diseases, reducing environmental hazards to health, maintaining adequate sanitation and protecting the safety of people.

Robinson said the program struggled to achieve its purpose and lacked sufficient enforcement mechanisms. It was difficult to access rental units, and the ordinance failed to provide sufficient penalties for property owners who routinely failed inspections and refused to bring their properties into compliance with minimum standards.

Bickner will assist in developing a rental housing ordinance — or adapting the existing ordinance — so that it is easily and effectively enforced. He will also develop a reliable recordkeeping system and database for reporting, and create a realistic and workable plan for regularly scheduled and compliant-based inspection of all rental housing in Worthington, officials said.

Bickner said that during his time in Linn County, Iowa, they developed an administrative penalty that resulted in prompt compliance from owners of rental properties.

One option that worked well to bring properties into compliance was to have the city hold rental payments in escrow until the property owners brought the house into compliance.

“That gets their attention,” Bickner said. “They’re in the business of making money.

“And if the money goes to the city, the renters haven’t violated anything — they’ve paid their rent.”

“I can see where that can get the attention of the landlord,” said Mayor Mike Kuhle. ““I would hope that we can really go after the worst offenders in the rental housing business here in Worthington.

“There are some really good landlords here in Worthington. Going after the worst offenders would be my personal goal,” he added.

In other action, the council:

  • Approved a new three-year agreement with Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson. Set to take effect Jan. 1, the agreement states that Robinson will be paid an annual salary of $145,538.60 in 2022; $153,645.09 in 2023; and $162,203.11 in 2024. In addition, Robinson will receive a $550 monthly allowance for use of his personal automobile for official duties, as well as a $50 per month cell phone allowance.

  • Accepted a $100 donation from an anonymous individual to be distributed by the Worthington Police Department through a Secret Santa program. Worthington patrol officers will give out cash tucked inside Christmas cards during traffic stops before Christmas.

  • Appointed Gene Abbott as designated building official, effective Nov. 30. Abbott replaces the retiring Armand Eshleman.

  • Approved an application from Currie Town & Country Boosters, Inc. to conduct off-site gambling for Bingo events planned at the Worthington Event Center, 1447 Prairie Drive, between Jan. 12 and April 20, 2022.

  • Approved a three-year professional services agreement with Woodard and Curran to operate and manage the industrial wastewater treatment facility near the Worthington Rendering plant, which treats discharges from JBS. Woodard and Curran recruited retired plant manager Jerry Vogt to be a consultant for them during the transition.

  • Approved the hiring of Drealan, Kvilhaug, Hoefker & Co. to conduct the city’s 2021 audit.