Committee set up to deal with MW water policy for rentals

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By Alex Wimsatt

 MOUNT WASHINGTON - Why should landlords have to pay for obligations their tenants commit to?

That was the question Phil Barnhouse and other Mount Washington rental property owners had in mind when they attended a recent meeting of the Mount Washington City Council.

The dozen or so landlords attended the meeting in protest of a 37-year-old ordinance that holds property owners and occupants jointly liable for unpaid water and sewer bills. 

Section 50.139 of the Mount Washington Code of Ordinances states, “If the occupant of any premises is not also the owner, both the owner and the occupant shall be responsible for the payment of the water and sewer bill, which, if unpaid, shall constitute a lien upon the premises.”

Barnhouse said he had never heard of the ordinance until he recently spoke with a landlord who was told she was responsible for her tenant’s unpaid water bills. 

After learning of the ordinance, Barnhouse and other rental property owners went to city officials with their concerns.

Mayor Joetta Calhoun and council members agreed to put the issue on the Nov. 14 council meeting agenda for discussion.

Phil Barnhouse, who owns the Youngstown Park Apartments off Old Bardstown Road and a few rental houses around town, went before the council arguing that it’s unfair for the city to hold rental property owners responsible for services they don’t receive. 

“When one of our tenants opens an account that transaction is between the tenant and the water company,” he said. “We don’t feel like we should have to pay for a service that a tenant contracts for and receives. It’s that simple.”

If it seems like the ordinance came out of nowhere, that’s because it did. 

The ordinance was not enforced for many years, and as a matter of fact, city officials were unaware the ordinance even existed.

“The policy has been that when customers don’t pay their bills and we can’t track them down the city eats it,” Calhoun said.

Since 1994, the city has lost $138,000 in unpaid water bills, which works out to around $8,118 per year, according to Calhoun.

“Without going to great expense, it’s tough to track down that money,” she said.

Council members unanimously voted in favor of a resolution to suspend the policy that holds landlords liable for their tenant’s water and sewer bills until the ordinance can be amended.

The resolution also suspends the part of the ordinance that places liens on owner’s properties. 

The council effectively decided to take no further action until a special committee made up of council members and landlords has the opportunity to recommend policy changes to the City Council.

Phil Barnhouse will be among those serving on the committee. 

Barnhouse said he hopes the committee will recommend the city require new water customers pay a higher deposit amount to protect the water company when individuals don’t pay their bills and skip town.

Right now the city collects a deposit fee of $100 from new customers. 

Secondly, Barnhouse said service should be suspended in a timely manner when payments are overdue.

The city’s current policy allows customers a 15-day grace period from the time payment is due. After that, penalty fees accrue and service is cut off if the city does not receive payment within 15 days.

“We just want to make sure the people who use the service are paying for the service,” Barnhouse said. “As local small business operators, we don’t want to come off like we’re unhappy with city government. We think it’s just an antiquated rule that needs to be updated.”

Councilman Barry Armstrong agreed, however, he suggested the city air on the side of caution. 

“I don’t want to make it difficult on folks having a hard time, but I also don’t want to make things hard on property owners,” he said.