By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Water and Sewer Committee of the Havre City Council will consider a proposal requiring the city to collect a water deposit from renters to reduce landlords' liability for unpaid water bills.
Committee member Allen "Woody" Woodwick, who is a landlord, suggested Tuesday that the committee consider the deposit after two local landlords again complained about getting stuck with water bills after tenants waste water or leave without paying their bills.
"It has cost me a lot of money," landlord Jim Treperinas told the committee. "It's not one time, it's not two, it's not three."
Woodwick told the committee an existing city ordinance has a provision allowing the city to collect a deposit equal to two times the average monthly utility bill for the rental unit or $75, whichever is larger.
The committee voted to take up the issue at its next meeting, which will be scheduled during the Aug. 4 City Council meeting.
"I have been burned by some of the water bills before and I think the deposit would be a good compromise," Woodwick said Wednesday. He added that since the city does the billing, often landlords don't find out a tenant is not paying the water bill until the bill is delinquent, so the deposit would be insurance for landlords.
Woodwick said landlords can already collect a deposit from their tenants, but that it's not a regular practice.
Treperinas told the committee he supports a $100 water deposit paid to the city. He said if he decided to collect his own deposits or increase rent to cover the cost of water, he would not be able to compete with other landlords.
City Clerk Lowell Swenson said deposits would create more work for the city.
He said the city used to collect a water deposit in the 1950s and 1960s, but whenever people didn't collect their deposits when they moved, it made accounting difficult.
"We still have some that haven't been paid," Swenson said. "So it can be kind of a record-keeping headache when you've got a deposit that's 40 years old."
"The way we're doing it now is fine," Swenson added.
In 1997 the City Council passed by a split vote an ordinance making landlords, not tenants, ultimately responsible for paying for the water used on their property.
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.
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.
He said that when landlords are not made responsible for the water use on their property, the price of water rises as the burden of unpaid water bills is shifted to all ratepayers.
Havre landlords have complained that they have trouble collecting from tenants who leave without paying the water bill. Landlords who are billed directly for their tenants' water use say they also have a problem of tenants who waste water, driving the bill over what landlords have budgeted for water.
Also on Tuesday night, landlord R. Cameron Worstell again asked the city to pay $4,700 for damage he said resulted from a service line break in June. He claimed it was caused by negligence by city workers who came to terminate water service at one of his properties.
Worstell had read a letter to the City Council on July 7 asking the city water department to pay for the damage.
Worstell also said he was not properly notified that the water service would be terminated.
City meter reader Bonnie Doll told the committee the break was not the city's fault.
"I don't believe we should have to pay for that because we followed proper procedure," she said. "... I swear we did nothing wrong."
Havre Mayor Bob Rice told Worstell to file a claim with the city's insurance company, which would decide whether to pay damages.