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Council stand on utilities is giving way

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The unanimous stand taken by Village Council at its last meeting for holding property owners responsible for their tenants’ utility debts began crumbling at Monday’s meeting, when two Council members formerly for the policy change weighed in against it, and another expressed ambivalence.

On Monday evening the policy change passed its first reading but just barely in a 2-1-2 vote, with Karen Wintrow and Gerry Simms voting for holding landlords responsible, Lori Askeland voting against and Marianne MacQueen and Brian Housh abstaining. Council members agreed to give the issue three readings, and will take their second vote at the May 4 meeting. Wintrow stated that she voted yes because up until now she has supported the policy change, but she might not do so the next time.

Recommended by Village Manager Patti Bates and Finance Director Melissa Vanzant, the proposed change sought to capture the approximately $20,000 yearly that the Village has been losing in delinquent utility bills, largely due to tenants leaving town without paying. Until now, landlords have not been held responsible and the Village has eaten the debt; surveys obtained by Bates and Vanzant indicated that the majority of area municipalities hold landlords responsible. In response to concerns from landlords that the amount the Village stands to gain is a tiny portion of the $4.2 million it receives each year in utility payments, Bates said the policy change is one of many small changes that together will make a difference in Village fiscal sustainability.
Monday’s vote followed several meetings dominated by landlords who protested the change, and according to MacQueen, the level of acrimony in those meetings contributed to her change of heart on the policy.

“Council has listened, but has had no opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion,” she said, stating that the issue “has created an adversarial discussion. I’m more concerned about the impact of the process.”

Over the weekend, MacQueen said, two landlords spoke to her on the issue, which is the first time she’d spoken one-on-one about the policy change. “It made a difference,” she said.

MacQueen also said she abstained from the vote because the revised ordinance had not been available to Council members before the meeting, and she didn’t feel comfortable voting on something she hadn’t had time to study. Housh said that he abstained in support of MacQueen’s discomfort.

According to Askeland, a variety of factors contributed to her change in vote. She’s concerned that the proposed policy doesn’t differentiate between the owners of residential and commercial properties, so that commercial landlords could end up responsible for significant amounts of money. She was also influenced by concerns raised by John Hempfling and former Council president Judith Hempfling, that municipalities have considerably more means to absorb debts than do individual landlords. Finally, she’s troubled about the policy change’s potential negative effect on affordability, an issue raised by landlords.

“We need robust rental units,” she said.

However, Askeland emphasized her gratitude to Village staff, who had recommended the change in the context of a holistic approach to fixing a previously inconsistent approach to utility debt collection. And Wintrow reminded Council members that they were the ones responsible months ago for tasking staff to take aggressive steps toward shoring up Village finances.

Regarding her own vote, Wintrow expressed ambivalence because most other area municipalities that hold landlords responsible only do so for water and sewer bills, since the towns, unlike Yellow Springs, don’t own their own electric service. Wintrow said she wants more information on other AMP communities, and also an opportunity to hear about consequences for landlords; she indicated her vote could change in the future.

Before the Council vote, Vanzant presented recent changes in the utility department’s system of collecting debts, which had been made in response to landlords’ concerns about the process. The document can be found online in the April 20 Council packet at yso.com. Among the changes, the new policy would, while holding landlords ultimately responsible, allow landlords to put the contract for Village utilities in the tenant’s name.

Several landlords also spoke at the meeting, with Jo Dunphy urging Council to hold off the policy change until the end of the year, when the Village hopes to have in place new radio-read remote electric meters, which will allow more prompt and consistent electric readings. Sam Young asked Council why it had responded to the concerns of three of the Village’s largest businesses that sought water softening, as reported in last week’s Yellow Springs News, but has ignored the pleas of landlords.

“What’s the deal here?” Young said. “Why were three businesses selected for public funding while others have to contribute more” to public coffers.

However, according to Wintrow, all businesses were invited to a meeting on the water softening issue, and about 20 attended. Also, she said, the issues are different, and softer water will save money for everyone due to a decrease in maintenance on pipes and appliances.

Other topics of the April 20 meeting will be covered in next week’s News.

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