Despite voicing concerns about the cost of reforms, Portland city councilors said Monday that they want the city to beef up oversight of fire safety and make more information available to renters who may be living in substandard or unsafe buildings.

The statements came a day before the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee is scheduled to take up the recommendations of a fire safety task force, and a day after an investigative report by the Maine Sunday Telegram highlighted holes and inconsistencies in the city’s oversight system.

The newspaper found, for example, that the city has kept an internal list of about two dozen properties that are considered unfit for rental voucher recipients, but it has never warned other renters about the problems in those buildings. It also revealed that even though more than 200 apartment buildings appear to have unresolved violations, inconsistent and poor record-keeping could make it difficult for the city to force repairs or take legal action against landlords.

Several city councilors said Monday that they intend to question city officials about the internal “no-rental” list and why one type of tenant is kept out of the buildings while other tenants are not.

“If it’s unsafe for one group of residents, it’s fair to conclude that it’s unsafe for others,” said Councilor John Hinck. “We shouldn’t have two standards.”

Mayor Michael Brennan, when asked whether one type of tenant is receiving more protection than others, would not say whether he thinks the list is inappropriate. Instead, Brennan noted that a task force, formed after six young people died in a fire in November on Noyes Street, has made a series of recommendations to improve the safety of Portland’s 17,000 rental units.

The task force has not addressed the city’s no-rental list, but it has recommended a new housing safety office that would be staffed with a coordinator, three inspectors and an administrative assistant. It’s estimated that the initiative would cost more than $400,000, which the group thinks it can fund by charging landlords $20 per rental unit.

The task force also has recommended creating an online database for housing records to increase public access and allow the city to prioritize its inspections based on the risk of each building, determined in part by the construction type, age, neighborhood, number of units and complaint history. It also wants to focus on public education for tenants and landlords, and adopt a ticket and fine system for violators.

Although those recommendations have been discussed by the task force for months, Brennan declined to offer an opinion about whether the proposed fixes go far enough or whether the council should allocate the money to pay for them. “I’m sure these issues will receive serious consideration as we go through the budget process,” Brennan said.

CITY DEFENDS NO-RENTAL PRACTICE

City Communications Director Jessica Grondin defended the practice of preventing tenants who receive housing assistance from living in certain buildings while allowing landlords to continue renting to non-subsidized tenants.

“The no-rent list actually protects all tenants as it has been an effective way to force unresponsive landlords into compliance for properties with outstanding code violations,” Grondin said. “As further protection for all tenants, the city can and has posted buildings against occupancy when the code violations warrant it.”

Hinck, who serves on the council’s Finance Committee, said the practice is “peculiar, to say the least” and the city should not have different safety standards for different types of tenants. However, Hinck also said he is concerned about creating a new fire safety regulatory scheme that would be costly and burdensome.

Gov. Paul LePage’s state budget proposal would put pressure on the city’s property tax base by reducing revenue-sharing and General Assistance payments.

Additional spending also is a concern of Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the public safety committee and serves on the Finance Committee. He agrees that improvements are needed in the inspection program, but said any new programs or staffing should draw on existing positions.

Suslovic has been a critic of staffing levels in the fire department, noting that Portland has more firefighters per capita than any other department in New England.

“Clearly, there needs to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to get out to all of the rental units,” he said.

COUNCILORS HAVE SEVERAL CONCERNS

Suslovic said the city’s top priority should be enforcing a 25-year-old ordinance that requires landlords to register their properties with City Hall.

Many commercial properties are owned by limited liability companies, which effectively conceal the true owners, making it difficult for the city to obtain compliance when code violations are found.

Suslovic said firefighters should do safety checks on evenings and weekends for residents who volunteer to have their apartments inspected. That would allow them to educate tenants about unsafe habits, while referring code issues to inspectors.

“I think we’ll fail miserably if we only focus on the landlords,” he said.

Councilor Justin Costa, who serves on the public safety committee, said he plans to question city staff about the no-rental list and the city’s efforts to keep its records up to date. “The only thing worse than operating out of ignorance is operating on false information,” Costa said.

Councilor David Brenerman, who serves on the public safety committee, said he was not aware that the city applies different standards for subsidized tenants, but he needs to learn more about the criteria used to determine whether a building should be on the no-rental list.

Brenerman said the city should make more information available to renters, but before records are posted online, the city needs to do a better job of following up on violations to make sure records are current.

“You have to be up to date if you put this information on the city’s website,” he said.

One landlord told the Maine Sunday Telegram that it took a year for the city to update its records to reflect improvements that were made at a three-unit building on Washington Avenue.

LANDLORD CALLS SYSTEM HAPHAZARD

On Monday, another landlord contacted the newspaper after seeing his name on the no-rental list.

William Dixon was listed as the landlord for two properties: 1948-1950 Forest Ave. and 1954-1958 Forest Ave. The no-rental reason cited in city records for both properties was “bedbugs.”

Dixon said he sold the buildings in February, and that he had a problem with bedbugs in one of the apartments just once in the past 30 years. He said he promptly treated both of his buildings for bedbugs and called the city to make sure he was doing what was expected. He said the city agreed he was doing the right thing, and never inspected his properties or informed him that he was being listed.

“It makes me feel bad that they’d put my name on a list when I have done everything I could possibly do,” said Dixon, a Falmouth resident who summers in Florida. “I had done everything I would have done if it was my own home.”

City officials said they were not able to provide a copy of the property inspection records Monday.