Village Council— Landlords protest change
- Published: April 2, 2015
At Village Council’s March 16 meeting, Council members heard a second full-throated protest by local landlords to a proposed new Village policy holding landlords responsible for their tenants’ utility debts. Following a long discussion, several Council members appeared to be looking for a compromise.
“I’d like some answers on what kind of procedural changes we can make that stop short of making the property owners responsible,” Council President Karen Wintrow said after the discussion.
The topic was discussion only, and Village staff was charged with bringing more information to Council’s April 6 meeting, when the conversation will continue.
Before the landlords spoke, Village Finance Director Melissa Vanzant and Manager Patti Bates presented their reasoning for recommending the new policy. In the last 25 years the Village has accumulated almost $500,000 in debt in utility funds, largely from tenants who move away without paying a final bill. According to several surveys of area towns and cities, the vast majority hold landlords responsible for their tenants’ delinquencies, either by contracting directly with the landlords or adding the debt to a landlord’s property tax assessment.
Ohio law has given municipalities this authority since the 1940s, according to Village Solicitor Chris Conard, partly because landlords are perceived as having more leverage over tenants, including the threat of eviction, than do municipalities. Landlords also have the initial ability through credit checks to determine if a tenant is able to pay. In contrast, a municipality is obligated to provide utilities to anyone who requests them, unless that person already has debt to the municipality, Conard said.
“The fact is, the authority exists” for municipalities to hold landlords responsible, Conard stated.
In response, several landlords protested that the amount lost to tenant utility debt yearly — less than $20,000 — is a tiny amount compared to the $4.3 million in utility billings each year.
“This is small potatoes,” said Dean Pallotta, who encouraged Village leaders to focus instead on areas where they get “more bang for the buck.”
But the proposed change is one of several small changes instituted recently to bring the Village’s financial house in order, according to Bates. Other changes include budget cuts in each department, a smaller than usual (1 percent) cost-of-living increase to Village staff salaries, small increases in solid waste rates and a recently passed 10 percent increase in water rates.
“All of these things, taken individually, mean very little. But put them all together and we are on our way to a healthier, sustainable budget,” Bates wrote in her report.
Several landlords faulted the Village for being too lax with utility customers, and urged more aggressive collection strategies. Bob Baldwin encouraged Council to tighten up collection practices for six months before coming to landlords, and several also warned Council that, because landlords will pass on any increased costs to tenants, the proposed changes would have a negative affect on affordability and diversity in the village.
“We just shut down affordable housing in Yellow Springs,” Jo Dunphy said.
Sam Young, a co-owner of MillWorks, faulted Council for not differentiating between commercial and residential tenants in the proposed policy change. His tenants include businesses that use thousands of dollars of water or electricity monthly, he said, and it’s unfair to expect an individual landlord to shoulder that burden should the tenant default.
“This fails on a moral scale,” he said of the proposed policy change.
After hearing from landlords, Council members weighed in on the issue. Gerry Simms questioned the small amount of revenue that would be collected if the policy changes, and asked if, “as a homeowner, do I want to subsidize the renter?” Brian Housh worried about the policy’s effect on affordability, and emphasized his concern about “how does this all balance out?” regarding the whole village. Marianne MacQueen asked if it’s possible to learn from municipalities that have changed to a similar policy in recent years whether affordability suffered.
In response, Bates said she did request information from five municipalities that switched to a similar policy last year and only one city, Cleveland, responded. Officials there said no change in affordability has been seen, Bates reported.
Bates emphasized that if the new policy passes, it would be phased in gradually, and that there are various ways the Village would help landlords collect debts, including alerting them immediately when a tenant falls behind.
In response to concerns about the current Village utility payment process, Bates said that a utility bill is issued on the first of the month, and is considered overdue 30 days later, when the next bill, marked “delinquent,” is issued. The customer has until the second bill’s due date, two weeks later, to pay up, and a disconnect notice is issued if the payment isn’t received. Utilities are disconnected within seven days of the disconnect notice, or about 50 days after the initial billing.
Council asked Village staff to address some of the questions raised by landlords, and report back at the next meeting.
“I still feel we need more information,” Wintrow said.
In other Council business:
• Council unanimously passed the second reading of an ordinance that approves a 10 percent increase in Village water rates.
• Council passed the second reading of an ordinance that vacates an unused alley on the Antioch College campus.
• Brian Housh, Council representative to the Community Access Panel, or CAP, which runs Channel 5, reported that Paul Abendroth and Jean Payne, longtime mainstays of the station, both plan to step aside. Both positions are currently volunteer, and Council members considered how to fill the positions in order to continue providing local programming. The Village has $41,000 earmarked for running the station, Housh said.
A longer conversation is required to determine the extent of programming the Village wants to provide, according to Wintrow, who said she feels obligated to at a minimum provide coverage of Village government meetings. Council agreed to look into hiring someone on a shortterm contract basis to keep the station running while considering the options..
• Council reviewed the agenda for its March 31 Council retreat, which will be held at Rockford Chapel on the Antioch College campus. At the retreat Council will focus on process rather than policy, and agenda items include planning agendas to make them more effective; Council meeting format; developing and managing a social media policy; and improving Council effectiveness with staff, commissions and citizens.
Council’s next regular meeting is Monday, April 6 at 7 p.m. Agenda items include a continuations of the conversation regarding responsibility for delinquent utility payments and a conversation on water softening for the new water plant.