By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Havre chapter of the Montana Landlords Association has filed a lawsuit against the city of Havre over a city policy about water-service billing.
The lawsuit asks that the 1997 city ordinance that makes landlords responsible for the water bills of renters be declared unconstitutional and that the city pay damages to the landlords.
The association filed the suit after trying unsuccessfully for 10 months to convince the Havre City Council to change the ordinance. The landlords said it's not fair to hold them responsible for the bills of tenants who don't pay their water bill or use excessive amounts of water.
The lawsuit, if successful, could have statewide ramifications.
Alec Hansen, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, said most cities in Montana use a system similar to Havre's.
"Just about all of them bill to the landlords and there's a very good reason for it," he said. "If those bills don't get paid, everyone else in the system ends up making up the difference and that's just not fair."
Milton Datsoupolis, a Missoula attorney representing the Havre landlords, said landlords in other communities might follow the Havre chapter's action.
He said about 35 Havre landlords who are not members of the chapter have asked to be parties to the suit and he expects that other organizations representing landlords in Montana will file briefs in support of it.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice declined to comment on the lawsuit. The city is in the process of selecting an attorney to represent it in the case, he said.
Datsoupolis said there are strong arguments in favor of the lawsuit.
"(The ordinance) holds the owner, who is the nonuser, hostage here," he said. "They're trying to use the landowner to act as the collector and the guarantor for a municipal service."
The lawsuit said the Havre ordinance violates Montana law prohibiting unfair and deceptive business practices. The landlords are forced to pay delinquent bills so the next tenant can have water service connected, the suit said.
The lawsuit said the ordinance also violates the equal protection clause and the due process clause of both the U.S. and Montana constitutions.
Brad Lotton, spokesman for the Havre chapter of the Montana Landlords Association, said its members strongly supported filing the lawsuit.
"There wasn't one person opposed at any meetings," he said. "This has been going on for seven years and we're very weary of it."
Hansen said communities have to collect the money to operate their water services. If they are left with the debt, it would be spread to all water users in the town, he said.
"Eventually it's going to end up on some other person's bill," he said.
The Havre City Council and its committees were sharply split on the issue when it was discussed last winter and spring.
Some council members said the people using the water should be the ones billed for it. Others said delinquent bills are a business expense for landlords.
The landlords rejected a proposal by the city to begin charging a water deposit.
The council's Ordinance Committee tied, 2-2, on an April 26 vote whether to make tenants responsible for their water bills and sent the question to the full City Council without a recommendation.
Mayor Bob Rice broke a 4-4 tie on May 3, voting to keep the ordinance as it was and the water bills in the property owners' names.
City officials also said they would begin following their existing policy to give landlords proper notice when water bills become delinquent.
Havre landlord Charlie Grant, who is not a member of the landlord association, said the delinquent bill should follow the renter, not go to the landlord. Now, tenants can leave a delinquent bill at a rental, move to a new property with a new landlord and repeat the process, he said.
Landlords end up having to raise their rents to cover the expense, he added.
"I truly believe that the tenants on account of this are paying more for rent than they have to," he said. "That doesn't help our town. It doesn't help us."
Lotton said the policy hurts renters.
Havre city clerk Lowell Swenson said water bills go to the tenant only if a landlord requests it. If the property owner wishes, the city will send the bill to the tenant in care of the property owner, he said.
In either case, the property owner is ultimately responsible for the bill, he added.