Last week, the DeKalb City Council discussed an ordinance that would establish, regulate and pay for inspections of local hotels. Perhaps as early as Monday, the council could finalize new rules, fees, and schedules that would be part of those inspections.
Whatever the council decides, it won’t be soon enough. Literally.
Because the urgency, as officials and hotel owner/operators told the Daily Chronicle last week, is ensuring that hotels look good and are safe, clean and operable in time for the Illinois High School Association state football championships … slightly more than two months from now.
The championships are in November at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium this year and in November of 2015, ’17, ’19 and ’21. The championships are a big deal because they represent a chance to make a good first impression on visitors from across the state. Supporters also hope the games attract significant tourism revenue.
That said, the hotel inspection issue seemed out-of-the-blue. Some residents wondered what was happening and why.
“Why isn’t this being done already?” asked one Daily Chronicle online commenter. “I assumed that like any other city of its size or bigger that hotels and restaurants were inspected.”
According to a Sept. 4 memo to Mayor John Rey and the council, the Illinois Office of the State Fire Marshall stopped inspecting municipal hotel rooms about 10 years ago. Nobody stepped in to fill the void.
City staff queried other cities (Aurora, Chicago, Naperville, Champaign, Urbana, Bloomington, Normal, Carbondale, Peoria and Springfield were mentioned) and found that “overwhelmingly, comparison communities conduct annual inspections of one form or another of hotels within their corporate limits.”
Long story short: Nobody in authority has inspected DeKalb hotels in a long time.
The proposed amendment to Ordinance 55 (which covers hotels) says the city has determined that:
• “there are unlawful or unsanitary conditions within certain hotels or motels within the City that present a threat to the public health, welfare and safety,”
• “there exist obvious violations of the building and property maintenance codes; many code violations,” “relate to the presence of long-term occupancies for which the properties are neither designed nor equipped,”
• “in the absence of City intervention, there is a clear public safety threat that will be posed by the continuing operation of Hotels and Motels in the City of DeKalb.”
Of particular concern is evidence of people living in hotels long-term. DeKalb city attorney Dean Frieders told me this evidence is that the city has received “calls, questions and complaints from individuals who are actually staying at these hotels on a long-term basis, asking who they should complain to. Hotel owners themselves have asked questions about collecting taxes and fees from people who have stayed longer than 30 days.” In some cases, people have stayed months, even years.
To get started quickly, the city proposes to pay firefighters to conduct inspections and pay for them by charging hotels staggered fees based on their size.
Under the proposal, small hotels such as the DeKalb Motel (20 rooms) would pay $720, or $36 a room. Larger hotels such as the Travel Lodge (106 rooms) would pay $1,700 or about $16 a room, but it’s likely first-year fees will be less. The city says fees are designed to be cost-neutral, that is, to cover the cost of inspections, not just to make money.
Here’s where the classic tension between the need for regulation and allowing the market to regulate itself would arise, but hotel owners oppose only the fees, not inspections themselves.
“One thing we’re really trying to do is work in cooperation with hotel owners, [and] hotel owners are uniformly in support of inspections,” Frieders said.
Let’s hope fervently that these inspections reveal only minor flaws.
• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).