Krista Corner Havre Daily News email@example.com
The Havre chapter of the Montana Landlords Association and the Water and Sewer Committee met Monday night to discuss a proposal to end the two-year dispute over the city’s policy of charging the landowners not renters for city water. The committee decided to bring the discussion back to the Havre City Council and recommend taking the talk to the Ordinance Committee, which may consider instituting water deposits for tenants and study whether the city can track and release tenants’ water payment histories. The Ordinance Committee can also clarify whether a landlord can shut off a tenant’s water as a last resort, Water and Sewer committee chair Pam Hillery said. The meeting began peacefully and respectfully on both sides. As discussion wore on, though, some heated arguments arose, particularly over who should foot the bill when a tenant moves out at the middle of any given month. The landlords said it should be the city’s responsibility to read the meters when the tenant moves out during part of the month. “We only read the meter once a month right now,” city clerk Lowell Swenson said.
Association member Brad Lotton suggested the city read the meters immediately after being notified that a tenant has left the property so the new tenant wouldn’t get charged for the old tenant’s part of the bill. “Who would pay the base rate then?” committee member Gerry Veis asked. Lotton suggested the city solve that problem by using the policy they use when property gets sold. “If someone was to buy property and the new owners assumed ownership on the 10th (day of the month), who pays the base rate?” Lotton asked. “Both,” Swenson said. Lotton said then both the old tenant and the new tenant should get charged the same as the property owners would. Committee member Terry Schend didn’t think that would work. “The only way I can see that working is if we shut the water off,” he said. Havre Mayor Bob Rice warned the landlords about having to shut the water off every time the property changed hands mid-month. “Remember, every time we shut something off, we run the risk of breaking the (water) box,” he said. Rice also said it would be difficult at best for the city to read the meters during the first two weeks of the month. During talk of a possible water deposit, another heated argument arose. “We want to see a deposit,” Darwin Zellmer said.
Hillery said the deposit was a part of the last round of discussions before the lawsuit took place. She added that it wouldn’t be fair for the city to require only the renters to pay for a water deposit. She asked Zellmer how the city could possibly determine a deposit. The association suggested the deposit either be a flat-rate fee or equal to three-months average cost of water on the property. Zellmer suggested the flatrate fee be around $100. Veis told Zellmer with the inevitableRising costs of water in the near future, $100 wouldn’t even put a dent in a water bill that went unpaid for two or three months. Rice said he didn’t like the idea of a water deposit at all. “We are audited on every dollar in the city...” he said. “We would have to set up another special line item ... it would create a paperwork nightmare,” he added. “We will try to work with you in the confines of the ordinance,” Rice added. The groups also discussed properties with duplexes or other multiple-residence situations. Someone suggested the landlords purchase a second water box, which would be substantially more expensive to the landlord than just paying the overdue water bill.
Rice said there were times when the shut-off notices came to his desk he had to make a decision about whether to override the clerk’s decision to shut off the water. He said in one instance, a man living with his grandchild unfairly got shut off because his neighbor in the duplex didn’t pay his bill. Rice said the man called him in the middle of the night and he went over to the property. Rice said after the man talked with him, he turned the water back on because the man and his grandchild shouldn’t have to suffer because their neighbor failed to pay. Association member and property owner Jim Treperinas said he has a duplex, and if one tenant is delinquent he expects the water to get turned off. He said that way the delinquent tenant would move out. Association member John Dritshulas agreed. He said he had one tenant he tried to evict for a past due water bill. He requested the city turn off her water to help him get her out of there. He thought the city understood what he was trying to do. Swenson said Dritshulas probably hadn’t filled out the proper form and that’s why the tenant still received water.
Association member Monica Gallegos suggested the city put a list of names on file so the landlords could call in and check to see if the potential tenant who’d filled out an application for rentals was on “the bad-boy list.” “Is that even possible?” Gallegos asked. She thought that maybe with confidentiality laws, the city may not be able to have a “bad-boy list.” Rice said he’d already checked with the city’s attorney about releasing the names of delinquent water users to the public. “We can give out the names of people who don’t pay their water bills,” he said. He added the city wouldn’t be able to give out any further information, such as social security numbers or dates of birth, though. Committee member Bob Kaftan then spoke up and asked the landlords how much of a problem the delinquent water bills actually were. Lotton said the total amount of delinquent bills the city had last year was $3,288. Treperinas said $1,800 of that belonged to snow birds and the rest to the landlords of delinquent tenants. Hillery said it was time to stop the discussions and decide if the committee was willing to take this back to the council and send it to the Ordinance Committee because the Water and Sewer Committee didn’t amend ordinances. She said the Ordinance Committee would look into the ordinance and see if the the delinquent slips and the shut-off notices were part of the ordinance. She also said the committee would look into tracking a tenant’s water history and consider the water deposit. Hillery also said the committee would clarify whether or not the landlord could request the city turn off the water as a last resort. Association president Paula Bielke said after the meeting the association leaders are “satisfied so far” with the negotiations.