By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A draft of an ordinance that would allow the city to collect deposits - equal to three months of water service - from new water customers will go before the Havre City Council on March 1.
The council's Water and Sewer Committee voted 3-0 Wednesday night to send the ordinance, drafted by City Attorney Jim Kaze, to the council. The council will then decide whether to send it to the council's Ordinance Committee for further review.
The effort to draft the ordinance began about eight months ago after several local landlords complained they were getting stuck with large water bills by renters who either waste water or leave without paying the bill. In Havre, landlords are held responsible for unpaid water bills left by their tenants. The ordinance does not change that, but the deposit is intended to minimize landlords' liability.
The ordinance would require a water deposit of three months' worth of water bills based on the monthly average of water use in the unit over the last 12 months or $120, whichever is higher. Renters and property owners who are getting water service with the city for the first time would pay the deposit. Water users whose water is disconnected for nonpayment would also be required to pay the deposit before getting service reconnected.
The ordinance also proposes increasing the cost of reconnecting water service from $15 to $40 for units where water was terminated for nonpayment, and from $10 to $20 for units that were temporarily disconnected at the owner's request.
The increased reconnection fee is intended to cover the actual cost of reconnecting a water line, committee member Allen "Woody" Woodwick said today.
The ordinance also more clearly defines the procedures for termination of water service. Under the ordinance, if a water bill is not paid within 60 days, the landlord and tenant would be notified with a registered letter. They would have 10 days to respond. If they didn't respond, they would receive a two-day termination notice.
Under that procedure, it would take about 72 days to terminate water service for nonpayment. Woodwick said some landlords had complained that the city was taking much longer than that - sometimes more than 90 days - to terminate service, increasing the amount the landlords had to pay.
A few landlords who attended the committee meeting Tuesday night opposed the proposed ordinance.
Brad Lotton, spokesman for the Havre chapter of the Montana Landlords Association, told the committee that the association does not support the ordinance.
"The changes in this draft are disappointing," Lotton said.
He said there is no provision in the ordinance providing for turning delinquent water bills over to a collection agency. Delinquent water bills will not follow the tenant from one property to another, Lotton said, so tenants who don't want to pay their water bill can simply move to another building and do the same thing to their next landlord.
"Maybe this bad bill should follow the tenants," he said, adding that under the current billing system landlords are being forced to act as a collection agency for the city.
"I would ask that you reject this and come back to the table truly willing to work this out," he said.
Woodwick, who is a landlord, told Lotton he thinks the ordinance is a compromise between what landlords and renters want, and that it adds protection for landlords.
Landlord Jim Treperinas said a provision in the proposed ordinance requiring a landlord to cosign with a tenant to get water service is unfair.
"With this in here, every time someone comes for water, I have to cosign," Treperinas said. "I don't even sign for my own son." He said he is concerned that he'll get sued if he refuses to cosign for a tenant.
The committee made one thing very clear: Regardless of landlords' wishes, it will not consider changing city code so tenants, not landlords, are ultimately responsible for paying for water.
If landlords were not held responsible for water bills left by their tenants, the cost of unpaid water bills would be passed on to all ratepayers.
"My sense of my ward is that the average person in Havre, Montana, does not want to see their water bill increased because of noncollections," said committee chair Dana West.
Committee member Jack Brandon said he is concerned that the $120 deposit could be a burden on working people and students.
"People who are living on minimum wage jobs or students ... this amount of money may not be easy for them to come up with," he said, but added that he thinks the proposed ordinance is a compromise that the full council should discuss.
If the council sends the draft to the Ordinance Committee and the committee votes to approve it, two public hearings would be required before the council could approve the new ordinance, Woodwick has said.