By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Havre City Council may re-examine a controversial ordinance that requires landlords - not tenants - to pay water bills.
Three local landlords complained to the council about the ordinance Monday night.
The ordinance, passed seven years ago, changed responsibility for the bill from the renter to the landlord. That meant landlords, not the city, became responsible for collecting water payments from tenants.
City officials believed that landlords had closer contact with their tenants and would be better able to collect the payment than the city, said City Council member Dana West, who chairs the council's Water and Sewer Committee.
The landlords complained Monday that they have no recourse against tenants who waste water or leave without paying water bills.
Landowner Jim Treperinas said he was left with a $350 water bill when a tenant moved without paying the bill.
"Do I deserve that, to get stuck with that? I pay my bill," Treperinas said.
Havre City Council President Rick Pierson said the issue had already been discussed by the council.
"Our conclusion was, you take a water deposit from the tenant," Pierson said.
Treperinas encouraged the city to collect a water deposit from tenants.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said that would not solve the problem, because whether the city took the deposit or not, a $25 water deposit would not make up for an unpaid water bill of $350.
Local landlord Debi Rhines asked if the city could collect from remiss tenants.
"Can the city act as a collection agency?" Rhines said, adding that she was recently left with a large water bill when a tenant skipped town.
"The reason that this was passed seven years ago was because we didn't want to go and collect the bills anymore," Pierson told her.
Rhines, who is also a candidate for City Council in Ward 4, said renters who don't pay water bills "take advantage of the city and they take advantage of us homeowners."
City clerk Lowell Swenson said this morning that collection has been much more effective since landlords have been responsible for the water bills.
"When the renters were responsible, some of the bills didn't get paid," Swenson said. "We send very few delinquent bills to the credit bureau anymore."
Landlord R. Cameron Worstell read a letter to the council complaining of damage, estimated at $4,700, caused when a service line broke after the city attempted to shut off the water at one of his buildings because a past due water bill had not been paid.
"The reason I am here is to request that the city water department pay for the damages and to establish a written policy and procedures manual and protocol to follow to minimize that such senseless and unnecessary actions will happen again," Worstell read.
West said after the meeting that she would find out how other cities have dealt with the problem, and look into the possibility of the city acting as a collection agency.
She said she thinks most people in her ward think landlords should pay for the water. "The public in Havre doesn't want to pay for that either," she said. "They feel the landlords who make the money off the apartments should pay that."
"They feel like if renters aren't paying their water bills, it makes their water bills go higher," West said, adding that both the city and the landlords face the same frustration: people not paying their water bill.
West also said when landlords were not responsible for water bills, they often refused to allow the city to terminate water services to tenants with unpaid water bills. When tenants did not face the possibility of having their water turned off, it often made collecting from them difficult.
Alec Hansen, executive director of Montana League of Cities and Towns, said most cities in Montana make the property owner responsible for collecting the utility bill.
Hansen said the Legislature has considered bills to make renters responsible for water bills, and that the league opposed them.
"We don't want to put any additional (cost) on rate payers of sewer and water bills across the state of Montana," Hansen said. "The property owner is in a better position to collect those bills than the city."
He said some cities have hired collection agencies, but that most of those were to collect court fines.
"I'm not sure what you could do. How do you collect if he's gone?" Hansen said, adding that the business relationship between the renter and landlord is the best way to minimize delinquency.
The Water and Sewer Committee of the City Council will take up the issue on July 22 at 6:30.