Partnerships Lead to Prosperity | Opinion

As an elected official, I have learned to value partnership over punishment when dealing with our business community. If we want our region to thrive and our downtowns to prosper, government and business must work together in a spirit of cooperation.

Unfortunately, the Town of Sunbury has recently adopted an approach that favors punishment over partnership. On January 10, the City Council enacted Ordinance 1321 which requires all business owners to submit to a property inspection, by a private company, at a cost of $200 per property. The ordinance continues to threaten businessmen with fines and jail time if they fail to comply with city demands. Notices of inspection have even been sent to Northumberland County Commissioners for every property in the city’s county, demanding payment of taxpayers’ money.

The city ordinance is problematic for three reasons. First, it is unconstitutional. Second, it is not necessary to achieve the goal of safe business premises in the city. Third, it subjects business owners to unknown downside costs.

You can’t do the right thing the wrong way. Since 2003, it has been unconstitutional in Pennsylvania to threaten property owners with criminal prosecution when they deny entry to code officers without a warrant. Each property owner has the right to refuse the code officer until they show up with an administrative search warrant. Every businessman in Sunbury could defend his constitutional rights. This would have the effect of crippling enforcement of the ordinance by requiring the city to obtain a search warrant for each property or abandon the effort.

Spending more money outsourcing the problem to a private company does not guarantee results. In an online comment to a Daily Item article, a former Sunbury councilor might think, at first glance, of just four businesses that have been deemed chronic problems. A company refuses code inspectors. The Code Office can target enforcement by going to the Magistrate District Judge and obtaining an administrative search warrant. It is unjustifiable to force the many to pay for the few.

The timing of this costly effort is wrong. During the COVID pandemic, many local businesses have been forced to close or close permanently. Those who survived are barely reaching the “new normal”. Inflation, economic disruptions and labor shortages affect small local businesses the most. Any extra fees, forced construction costs or other unforeseen challenges could spell the end for those left behind.

The real cost is hidden. It’s unclear what the private code inspector, hired by a for-profit company and unaccountable to taxpayers, will rule as a violation. There appear to be no rules on grandfathered businesses, “new” businesses, and how the Code will be applied. Every business owner could be ordered to perform unknown repairs or improvements for thousands of dollars. This inspection order may deter new businesses from coming to Sunbury. We need to be a city of opportunity rather than a city of oppression.

As an elected official, I sincerely understand the importance of fighting the scourge and encouraging business. At the county level, we have successfully partnered with local businesses and revitalization organizations to clear problem properties and create an environment for new business. The county meets with landowners, city governments and revitalization groups to identify specific properties that need attention. The county supports municipal efforts with money and expertise.

Everyone in the Town of Sunbury wants a beautiful, safe and thriving community that we are proud of. Municipal government and business must work together effectively to solve the problems that affect us all. Partnerships lead to prosperity.

Kymberley Best, of Sunbury, is Northumberland County Commissioner and owner of two Sunbury businesses, Best Law Offices LLC and Gorgeous Hair Systems LLC.