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Village Council— Landlords held responsible for utilities

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A topic that has dominated Council discussions the past several months appeared resolved on Monday night, when Council members unanimously supported a proposed change in Village policy that makes property owners responsible for their tenants’ utility debts.

The topic was discussion only and no vote was taken. However, Council unanimously approved a measure asking Manager Patti Bates to bring legislation to Council’s next meeting for a vote.

For the third meeting in a row, Yellow Springs landlords loudly protested the proposed change in policy. About seven spoke to the change, arguing that Council is making too big a deal over a relatively small fiscal loss (about $20,000 a year), that the Village is not doing its job collecting delinquent bills effectively, that the change will result in higher rents and thus less affordability, and that ultimately the change is not fair to landlords.

“Don’t penalize landlords for the lateness of their occupants,” Dean Pallotta said. “You’re passing the buck.”

However, after hearing landlords’ arguments, Council members presented a united front in favor of the change, which was recommended by Village Manager Patti Bates and Finance Director Melissa Vanzant. The move aims to lessen Village government losses from unpaid utility bills, which have accumulated to almost a half million in the past 25 years. The new ordinance stipulates that the Village will sign utility contracts with landlords rather than tenants, and assess any unpaid utility bill to the landlord’s property tax should the bill remain unpaid.

In response to a landlord’s request that Council members speak to the fairness of the change, several did so.

“I don’t think it’s fair to assess everyone for these costs,” said Brian Housh, citing the current practice of Village taxpayers paying the tab for unpaid tenant debts. Housh also stated that, “If we’re honest about affordability, we have to admit that Yellow Springs is not affordable.” Some of the landlords’ arguments about the change’s affect on affordability have been “disingenuous,” Housh said, adding, “It comes down to, how do we work together to make the village more affordable?”

Responding to the question of fairness, Marianne MacQueen cited statistics that 70 to 80 percent of Ohio municipalities currently hold landlords responsible for tenants’ utility debts.

“Because something is a common practice doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right, but it means you need a good reason not to do it,” MacQueen said, stating, “It doesn’t seem unfair to have property owners be responsible.”

MacQueen and several others expressed discomfort with the amount of acrimony that the issue has caused, with MacQueen stating that Council was “blind sided” by the level of protest from landlords. And while Lori Askeland said she wrestled with the issue, she stated that “renting properties is a business,” and that landlords have business advantages, including the ability to write off losses in tax returns, that the nonprofit municipality does not have.

“There’s lots of ways the financial system is weighted in favor of property owners,” she said.

In response to a landlord’s concern that Council hadn’t explored other options, Council President Karen Wintrow said all Council members had researched the topic, talked to other municipalities, and examined many different options.

“We’re all conflicted about it,” she said. However, ultimately, she came down on the side of holding landlords responsible, citing the landlords’ responsibility to provide utilities with their properties. The new law will also encourage landlords to make their properties more energy efficient, something they currently have no incentive to do, she said.

For the meeting, Council received from Manager Bates a report of about 20 answers to questions landlords had asked and suggestions they made. Regarding the current delinquency process, the Village is not able to shorten the collection/shut-off process, as had been suggested, nor can the Village initially refuse service to a resident, unless a debt is already owed (landlords can refuse service). While the Village might be able to do credit checks, as some landlords proposed, the process could be costly and must be fair, according to Solicitor Chris Conard. While some landlords suggested that the Village should focus on collecting delinquent property taxes, for which a higher amount is owed, collecting those unpaid taxes is the responsibility of the Greene County Auditor, not the Village. And the Village plans to help landlords as much as possible by alerting them to any delinquent utility bills; landlords always have the prerogative of checking with the Village on their tenants’ status.

In other comments from landlords, Sam Young described the group of landlords as, while not especially large, “resourceful” and “savvy.”

“Council may be doing a disservice to its new manager by setting her in opposition to this group so early in her career,” he said.

Sandy Love wondered if Council has the mistaken perception that all local landlords are “rich” and tenants are “poor.”

“It’s not true. Our tenants aren’t poor,” Love said. “There’s no reason we should be supporting their utilities.”

Sigalia Cannon noted the friendly relationships she and her husband have with their tenants, and her concern that the new legislation will harm those relationships.

Ultimately, according to Housh, all of the arguments proposed by landlords protesting the change have opposing arguments as well — for instance, since the amount lost by the Village annually from delinquencies is relatively small, landlords also face small losses. Consequently, he and other Council members supported the proposed change.

Other business at Council’s April 6 meeting will be in next week’s News.

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