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Village Council finds unity on utility bill change

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Unified support around a proposed policy change to hold landlords responsible for their tenants’ utility debts emerged again at Village Council’s May 4 meeting, when Council voted 5–0 in favor of the change. It was the second of three readings of the new policy, and Council will hold its third and final reading, along with a public hearing, at its May 18 meeting.

The issue has dominated Council’s discussion for the past five meetings, with a full-throated chorus of landlords speaking at past meetings about their opposition to the change. And while Council voted unanimously in favor of the change at an earlier meeting, the vote at its last meeting was 2–1–2, with Karen Wintrow and Gerry Simms in favor, Lori Askeland opposed and Marianne MacQueen and Brian Housh abstaining.

But that disarray vanished at Monday night’s meeting, with each Council member indicating support of the new policy, which was proposed by Village Manager Patti Bates and Finance Director Melissa Vanzant as a small but significant piece of a holistic approach to shoring up Village finances. However, even as Council members supported the change, several discussed the difficulty of the issue.

“This is a hard one for me. I’m still talking to people, still listening, trying to respond to the evidence,” said Lori Askeland, who said she believes the change could encourage landlords to incorporate more weatherization measures in their properties, thus encouraging energy conservation.

After having “a lot of conversations” with villagers on the issue, Brian Housh said he has found an even split in opinion for and against the change. However, he believes the majority believe that the fairest approach is to hold property owners responsible for the utility debts of those who live on their properties, rather than spreading out the debt among all villagers, as has been the practice.

“Most citizens feel it should be the responsibility of the landlords,” he said.

Fewer landlords attended Monday night’s meeting, and fewer spoke, in response to Council President Karen Wintrow’s request that they present only new arguments against the policy. Dean Pallotta urged Council to share the financial responsibility of utility delinquencies with landlords, holding landlords responsible for water and sewer debts while maintaining Village responsibility for unpaid electric bills.

In past meetings, landlords have stated their concerns that the policy change puts an undue burden on individual property owners, who shouldn’t be accountable for their tenants’ debts; that the sum to be saved is too small for the amount of acrimony it has produced; that the Village should shore up its delinquent collection strategies rather than pass the burden to landlords; and that, since landlords can’t be expected to take on more financial vulnerability, the costs will be passed on to tenants, with the result a decline in affordability in the village.

MacQueen emphasized that affordability is a concern, and that Council needs to take proactive steps.

“We need more rentals, we need more affordable rentals,” she said, stating she will bring to Council a plan to use the Glass Farm for creating such affordable housing.

And if landlords are concerned about maintaining affordability, they could work with the Village and with their tenants toward that end, Brian Housh said.

Earlier in the meeting, Manager Bates stated that the new policy will only be applicable to new tenants rather than those with existing leases, thus ensuring a “gentle” roll-out of the policy change. And in response to questions asked by Council members at their last meeting, Vanzant said that in a survey of AMP communities, 62 percent hold property owners responsible for delinquent electric bills of their tenants. Manager Bates said she had checked with AMP communities regarding whether this policy affected the number of lower income tenants in their towns, and the towns said they had not seen a change.

Other items on Council’s May 4 agenda will be in next week’s News.

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