By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Havre tenants will not be required to pay a $120-a-month water deposit, the Ordinance Committee of the Havre City Council decided Monday night, 10 months after the idea was proposed by one of its members.
Instead, the committee voted to direct Havre Mayor Bob Rice to ensure that city employees follow the city's existing water ordinance by turning off water service promptly when people don't pay their bills.
"I am perfectly content with the existing ordinance if it's followed," said City Council member Pam Hillery, who sits on the Ordinance Committee.
"It has to be followed," said City Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick, another member of the Ordinance Committee. "It's not a suggestion. It's the law."
Committee members said they have received complaints from landlords that the city does not issue delinquency and termination notices as promptly as the ordinance specifies.
Under the ordinance, water users have 10 days from the time the water bill comes due to pay. After 10 days, a delinquent notice is sent out. If there is still no response, a termination notice is mailed. After 10 more days, the city leaves a notice at the residence that water will be shut off the next business day. That means a total of 61 days between the time a bill is issued and when water is shut off for nonpayment. Landlords complained that the city is shutting off after the user hasn't paid for three months.
City Clerk Lowell Swenson said today the city began in the last month to follow the termination procedure in the ordinance.
"That's what we're doing right now even though it costs a lot more," Swenson said, estimating that sending out delinquency notices to 400 accounts would add up to more than $1,000 a year in postage. He said the city estimated it would have to send out an average of 400 notices a month based on the usual rate of deliquencies.
Ordinance Committee chair Rick Pierson said today the city may be following the ordinance to the letter now, but he wants to make sure it will continue to do so.
"Really what it amounts to is that we're asking the mayor to oversee the fact that it gets followed and continues to get followed through," Pierson said.
Rice could not be reached for comment today.
The committee voted 0-3 against moving forward with a proposal for a $120 water deposit after Pierson questioned how the city could charge a deposit to a tenant, when the tenant is not responsible for the bill. Last week Rice decided responsibility will continue to rest with enants after the City Council voted 4-4 on the issue. The mayor votes only to break tie votes by the council.
Woodwick proposed the water deposit last July after some local landlords complained they were getting stuck with unpaid water bills.
He voted not to move forward with the deposit idea Monday.
Woodwick said today that was because the deposit was intended to be the equivalent of three months' water bills, and went hand-in-hand with a proposed provision to terminate water service after three months of nonpayment, instead of the two months included in the current ordinance. Since the committee was no longer interested in changing that part of the ordinance, he said, it didn't make sense to make the deposit that high.
The current ordinance says the city may charge a deposit of $75.
Hillery said the committee needs to decide at a later meeting if and when it wants to begin charging that deposit.
The committee also voted to direct the city to include a date of issue and due date on water bills, and to include additional information on the notice the city sends out to propery owners and tenants before disconnecting water service for nonpayment. That information includes the amount that is past due, any amount the user owes that is not delinquent, and when that amount is due.
Swenson said today he doesn't think it will be a problem putting a due date on the bills to help remind people to pay them. He said it could make people more likely to pay, but he doubts it.
"Myself, I don't think it's the due date that's causing people not to pay," he said, adding that most people know their bill is due by the next month and pay when their next bill arrives.
Cameron Worstell, president of the Havre chapter of the Montana Landlords Association, said after the meeting that although he is disappointed that the City Council did not vote last week to shift ultimate responsibility for water bills from landlords to tenants, he supports the committee's efforts to ensure that the existing ordinance is enforced.
"The clarifications here are, I think, welcome," Worstell said. The change will probably be "beneficial to everyone," he said, adding that in the past nobody really knew when their water bills were due.
"I think if the council instructs the mayor to follow the law, he will," he said.
The City Council will vote on the committee's recommendations Monday.