Landlords object to water bill policy

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 18, 2008

The Ironton City Council’s public utility committee meetings are usually pretty quiet affairs with discussions about sewer lines, CSO agreements and the like.

Now add a few of the city’s landlords who are upset they might be held responsible for tenants running up huge water bills into the mix, and Thursday’s meeting was much more vocal.

And more crowded.

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Instead of using the “fishbowl,” the windowed conference room on the second floor where council usually convenes, the meeting was moved to the council chambers on the third floor to accommodate the council members, several city officials and 23 landlords who showed up to voice their displeasure.

Leo Johnson, who is the chair of the public utility committee, started off the meeting by saying that he wanted to keep it focused on constructive matters.

Mayor Rich Blankenship said the ordinance that makes landlords responsible to pay the water bill if their renters skip out was put into effect in 2005.

He said it was apparently never enforced in the past three years and was only rediscovered after he and city department heads were talking about how to save the city money.

“We are open to suggestions and I’m glad to have meetings like this,” he said. “We’re not here to stiff anybody.”

Mark White, the head of the city water department, said that the department has been losing money for years and water, too.

He said part of the reason is the city only has one meter reader and pulls five men from other departments to read meters. It takes those six people five workdays to read all of the city meters. Then it takes two weeks to get the bills sent out.

He said the city puts out about 60 million gallons of water per year and they only bill for 25 million. He said that some three million gallons of water is lost from a city tank on a hill outside of town that is leaking and is scheduled to go out for replacement bid soon. Ten to 15 percent is lost because of tenants skipping out on their bills.

White said besides the tank replacement, which is expected to be performed in the fall, the water department needs updated computer software. Currently, the software can handle only sending a bill to one place. Which is one of the biggest complaints that the landlords had.

Many landlords said that tenants would get three months behind on their water bill and skip out. They said it wasn’t fair that they were to be held responsible for bills that sometimes total over $600. They said without a bill they didn’t know the bill was in arrears and also didn’t like that they had to pay the delinquent bill and a reconnect fee so they could rent the house again.

Ellnora Smith, one of the city water clerks told the crowd that the city has sent out over 444 delinquent bills in the past three months. The total amount owed on those is $134,728.

She said as of Wednesday, the city was owed more than $511,000 for delinquent water bills. It was owed by tenants.

She said with the current software runs slow and she and another clerk have to input a lot of the information by hand.

White said that with new software the clerks could send a bill to both the property owner and the tenant. But it would cost $30,000 to get a system in place and it would go out to bid maybe sometime this fall.

Johnson asked White why companies like AEP, Columbia Gas and Hecla Water could turn off utilities within days and the city couldn’t. White said it was in part because of the manpower to read and the antiquated billing system that it was three months before water got turned off. A second reason is that those other companies can operate under different rules because they are private companies and a city is a public entity.

One landlord asked why the ordinance required a signature of both the tenant and the landlord and why the landlord had to come into the water department office to sign it.

Smith explained that the landlords had to come in to make sure that their signature wasn’t forged.

In the end, the committee favorably recommending rescinding the 2005 ordinance and coming up with a new, stronger ordinance to replace it.

“We need to get something new with some teeth,” Bob Cleary said. “We need to make sure people pay their water bills.”

Among the suggestions was that a legal identification card had to be presented to sign up for water service and the security deposit be raised from the current $75.

The measure to rescind the ordinance could be on the agenda as soon as Thursday’s regular meeting. In the meantime, it is still the responsibility of whoever’s name is on the water bill to pay it.