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Village Council—Who will be responsible for unpaid bills?

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Should property owners be held responsible for the unpaid utility bills of their tenants?

Village Council considered this question at its Feb. 17 meeting, in a continuing discussion on how best to both recover past delinquent bills and prevent future delinquencies. The topic was discussion only, with Council agreeing to continue the discussion at its March 2 meeting.

The Village has been left with about $438,600 in unpaid utility bills since 1990, Finance Director Melissa Vanzant recently told Council, with about $200,000 in debt accumulating in the past eight years from 593 delinquent accounts. Overall, the Village has been losing about $22,000 annually in unpaid utility bills. While little has been done to recover the delinquencies, according to Vanzant, Council members stated they’re ready to address the problem.

While there are a variety of reasons for the unpaid accounts, the majority came from renters who left without paying their bills. At the Feb. 17 meeting, Village Manager Patti Bates, having been previously charged by Council to do so, presented draft language that would hold landlords responsible for the unpaid bills of their tenants.

However, Council faced passionate objections to the new policy from several villagers who own property in town. According to Sam Young, the change would be not only unfair but possibly illegal, because most Village utility contracts are currently signed with tenants rather than landlords.

“It’s legally suspect to sign a contract with one person and when that person defaults, dump it on someone else,” according to Young.

The new policy would encourage renters to leave their bills unpaid, according to Sue Abendroth, and if landlords have to pay, affordability in the village will suffer.

“You can be sure if this policy changes, the rents will go up,” Abendroth said.

But property owners should be held responsible if they’re making money on their property, according to Council member Marianne MacQueen, who owns the Village Guesthouse. MacQueen said she would expect to be held accountable if tenants don’t pay. Also, landlords have the option of including utility costs in the rent to avoid the possibility of default, according to Council member Lori Askeland.

However, including utilities in the rent discourages renters from conserving energy, which goes against Council’s goal to reduce the Village’s carbon footprint, Paul Abendroth said.

Overall, the Village needs some mechanism to reclaim the losses, according to Askeland. And most municipalities do hold property owners responsible for the utility debts of their tenants, according to Bates.

Council President Karen Wintrow requested that Bates research the policies of other municipalities and bring back sample language for a policy change.

“I need more information,” Wintrow said. “This is a big decision.”

In other Council Feb. 17 business:

• Council continued its discussion on implementing consistent rules and procedures for Village citizen commissions. Council members Brian Housh and MacQueen have been working together to make commission rules consistent, in response to commission members who sought clarity regarding their roles. MacQueen encouraged Council to take seriously recommendations from these citizen boards.

“Our commissions have amazing expertise,” she said.

However, Sue Abendroth asked Council members to keep in mind that they, unlike the commission members, are elected by citizens, and therefore have more authority.

“Council has the responsibility to make sure there’s a clear understanding of what commissions can offer and what they can’t,” she said.

• Council reviewed its 2015 goals, and will revisit the goals at its March 2 meeting.

• Council heard the annual report of the Library Commission from Greene County Library Director Karl Colón, who thanked the village for its support of the library levy in November. The levy passed county-wide, and 90 percent of Yellow Springs voters supported it.

“The level of engagement between Yellow Springs and the library is extraordinary,” Colón said.

Now that the levy has stabilized library funding, the library can better respond to its patrons’ needs, Colón said. Many people encouraged the library to extend its hours and beginning March 2, it will do so.

• Chair Nick Cunningham gave the annual report of the Human Relations Commission, which had a very busy year, with a new group of commission members. Current HRC members are Corey Johnson, Crissy Cruz, Kate Hamilton, Kathryn Hitchcock, Steve MacQueen, Debra Williamson, alternate Aaron Saari and Council representative Brian Housh.

Last year’s HRC activities included a community forum on the relationship between villagers and the police and offering small grants to a variety of community-building activities, including the YSHS Girls and Boys Night Out, block parties, the YS Pride, Mental Health First Aid,, the John Bryan Youth Center, the Valuing Diversity Conference, the Ninja Self Defense and Empowerment for Young Women, the Positive Choices curriculum, the annual McKinney Middle School 8th grade trip and the school district’s SPIDEE (Students Promoting Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Education) group.

• During citizens’ concerns, Christine Roberts encouraged Council to consider the possibility of using the vacant land intended for the Center for Business and Education, or CBE, as an official site to grow marijuana if the state issue legalizing marijuana passes in November.

“If we’re looking for economic development, we do have a site,” she said.

• During citizens’ concerns, Tawn Singh encouraged people to use the Greene CATS Yellow Line bus. While the current routes are inconvenient, they are an important asset to low income people, she said.

• Susan Jennings of Community Solutions gave a report on community efforts around climate change. Towns that are making climate action a priority are seeing benefits, including financial savings in utility use and increased economic development from green businesses, she said. Communities are also finding that there is funding available from private foundations that support climate actions, she said.

• Council’s next meeting is Monday, March 2, 7 p.m., at the Bryan Center.



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