By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Havre landlords will continue to be ultimately responsible for their tenants' water bills after a decision Monday night by the Havre City Council and Mayor Bob Rice.
The City Council voted 4-4 on the controversial proposal to make tenants responsible for water bills, leaving the decision to Rice, who can only vote to break a tie.
"Imagine that," Rice said after a roll call vote of council members produced the tie. "Imagine that." He called a five- minute recess and left the council chambers.
"It's been a very difficult decision for me to make," Rice said when he returned. "It's unfortunate that the decision had to come down to this.
"I've heard a lot of testimony in the past 10 months, primarily landlords. I can probably count the people - renters - on one hand that came forward. Had a lot of landlords come forward."
"I vote yes." A yes vote was to retain the existing ordinance, which makes landlords responsible for water bills.
Council members Tom Farnham, Pam Hillery, Terry Schend and Dana West voted yes. Council members Jack Brandon, Emily Mayer Lossing, Rick Pierson and Allen "Woody" Woodwick voted to change the ordinance in favor of landlords.
After the vote, Brad Lotton, a member of the Havre chapter of the Montana Landlords Association, said he was not surprised at the council's decision and added that the issue is not dead. "They've got to cure the problem before this is going to go away," he said.
The first step, he said, is for the city to "follow their own ordinance" so that water service is terminated before tenants accumulate large delinquent bills, which landlords are then responsible for. He said the association will have to have a meeting to decide what its next step will be.
Monday's decision came after 10 months of sustained effort by local landlords to get the city's water ordinance changed back to the way it was seven years ago. Before then, tenants were directly billed for water.
Several landlords have argued that they get stuck with large water bills by tenants who waste water or leave without paying the bill.
In response to the landlords' complaints, the council's Water and Sewer Committee produced a draft ordinance that would require renters and first-time property owners to pay a water deposit of at least $120. The ordinance committee met to consider the ordinance last week.
But the landlords said they wouldn't be happy until they were no longer responsible for the water bills in their rental units.
Committee member Woodwick proposed reversing the current ordinance so that the city billed tenants directly and landlords were no longer responsible. The committee was split on the proposal, voting 2-2 and sending it to the full City Council without a recommendation.
After the meeting Monday night, council members explained their votes.
Brandon voted to make tenants responsible for water bills.
Brandon said he made "several phone calls" to people in his ward, and that the views he got were split about evenly for and against changing the ordinance.
"I voted the way I did because I feel that it's the responsibility of the people that are using the water to pay for it," he said, adding that renters will be more responsible with their water usage if the bill is coming to them.
He said he does not believe the issue is finished because landlords still have a problem with people sticking them with the bills. He said a deposit and higher reconnect fees would be a compromise.
Farnham voted to keep landlords responsible for water bills.
"I felt it was part of doing business, and it's something the landlords could put in their lease" to adjust the amount a renter pays if he or she uses too much water, he said.
He added that the water shutoff procedure "should be in stone."
Hillery voted to keep landlords responsible for water bills.
She said she does not agree with the argument some landlords have made that the city should hire someone to collect from delinquent payers like any commercial utility.
"We're a public utility and our bottom line is completely different than NorthWestern (Energy) or Bresnan (Communications)," Hillery said. Landlords could not rent their properties without water, and they need to make sure it's supplied, she said.
Mayer Lossing voted to make tenants responsible.
She said she voted the way she did seven years ago, when she proposed putting the water bill in the tenant's name but still giving the city the option to collect from landlords if the tenant left without paying. Her suggestion "was not even considered," she said.
"I'm glad this issue is done," she said.
Pierson voted to make tenants responsible.
"I feel the way I did seven years ago," he said. "I believe everyone should be responsible for their own debt."
Schend voted to keep landlords responsible for the bill.
"It's part of the cost of doing business," he said. "I just feel as a landlord that's part of my responsibility" to furnish water, sewer and garbage pickup.
West voted to keep landlords responsible for the bill.
She said that when the city changed the billing to landlords in 1997, the people in her ward overwhelmingly felt the bills should go to the landlord.
"Going against the majority of the people in my ward didn't seem right," she said.
Woodwick, who is a landlord, voted to make tenants responsible for the bill.
Woodwick said that as a utility, the city has a responsibility to sell water to whoever wants to buy it, and that it also has the responsibility to send those water buyers a bill.
"And if we have a problem with the billing or collecting bills, I think we need to take care of the problem and not push it on to somebody else," he said.
The Ordinance Committee will meet May 10 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the amendment it took up last week to define the city's water termination policy and increase reconnection fees.