An example of a water shutoff notice (not utilized by Maywood). | everydaytrish.com
Wednesday, February 10, 2016 || By Michael Romain
Maywood staff members have recently reported a problem with renters who don’t pay their water bills while living in multi-unit buildings before moving out — and leaving landlords scratching their heads at the prospect of catching up on massively delinquent accounts.
According to chapter 51.03 of the village’s ordinance, the property owner, the occupant and the user of the water “are jointly liable for the water bill.”
“Once a renter moves without paying the water bill it is difficult to tract that renter down and receive payment,” according to a Jan. 17 memo authored by Norfleet.
“The same problems that the owner has will become the problems of the Village of Maywood if the owners are not responsible for paying the bill when delinquent.”
At a Jan. 27 Legal, License and Ordinance Committee (LLOC) meeting, Maywood Village Manager Willie Norfleet, Jr., recommended minor changes to that ordinance which would require cut-off notices to be sent out not only to the occupants and the owner of the premises, but also to the “owner of record, mortgage company, taxpayer of record and/or management company of the premises where the account is located.”
The notices would also “specify the outstanding overdue balance of charges, and provide” payment options, in addition to letting owners know about their ability to schedule a hearing about the account in question.
The ordinance amendment, which was approved by the board at a Feb. 2 meeting, also notes that the village’s failure to send out the courtesy notices or a property owner’s claim of “non-receipt” of a notice “shall not be a defense to the obligation of any responsible party to pay the outstanding charges.”
Norfleet also recommended that, in addition to beefing up its water shutoff notification process, the village also beef up its enforcement process and actually follow up on 30-day nonpayment periods with actual shutoffs.
That would entail the village being much less ambiguous than the ordinance states about who, in fact, is on the hook for the late water bill of a renter who has moved out of a unit. That would be the property owner, trustees and staff members said.
“I don’t think it’s fair to transfer [liability] from a renter to the village,” said Trustee Michael Rogers at the Jan. 27 LLOC meeting. “The village doesn’t pick the tenant … It’s important that the [ordinance holds] the party who decided to rent responsible … You have to take the measures you need to take to make sure you have a responsible tenant or you take them to court.”
Some trustees, however, were concerned about the ramifications the staff’s recommendations would have on renters who pay their bills on time, but share meters with those in arrears; or on senior citizens who may fall behind on water payments due to no fault of their own.
“Everyone who has a delinquent water bill has the opportunity to establish a payment arrangement and as long as they adhere to that, and we’re getting payment regularly, the water will not be shut off,” said Norfleet. “There hasn’t been a rash of people getting their water cut off who are unable to pay.”
Norfleet said that, for multi-unit buildings with one meter that feeds all units and one unit with more than 30-days of nonpayment, a shutoff notice will go out to all renters in the property.
“Then the owners have got to come out and take care of the one [unit] that is in fault,” Norfleet said.
Maywood Finance Director Lanya Satchell, whose department is in charge of tracking, and handling, water payments and nonpayment, said that her department takes multiple actions for one meter multi-unit buildings that may have at least one tenant in arrears.
She said an orange shutoff notice is posted at each entrance so that tenants are aware. She said that tenants will often show up at her office to inquire about the notice or will tell their landlords about the notice.
Satchell said that “a lot of times the landlords are aware, because we send them a bill, too,” but that they often choose to overlook a tenant’s delinquent water bill and take the monthly rent, “instead of addressing their tenant’s delinquencies.”
She said the “only time [seriously delinquent] water bills become an issue” with many owners is when the delinquent tenants move out of the building and landlords are pressured to rectify the situation.
But some problems related to seriously overdue water bill payments also stem from the village, some village officials conceded.
Satchell said that, since the village is currently repairing the buffalo boxes, or B-boxes, sometimes they’re unable to shutoff water, even at the request of landlords. She said the village is trying to convert B-boxes shared by single family homes into separate ones allocated to each home.
Loretta Robinson, a Maywood water commissioner, said she often hears tenants who come to her commission about water bills that are in their names, instead of in the property owners’ names.
“Why are we allowing a tenant to put the water bill in their name if they have no responsibility once they move? This has been a big problem,” she said.
“They go to the village, put the water bill in their name [and] sometimes landlords have no knowledge that tenants’ water bills are extremely high. This needs to be addressed.”
Another issue, said village officials, is the matter of enforcement.
“The key to [all this] is enforcement,” said Trustee Henderson Yarbrough. “If [the ordinance] is enforced, then we’re all good.”
But Satchell said the village’s public works department doesn’t have the manpower to actually shutoff water every time her department makes a request. She said this weakness is something landlords know and, likely, use to their advantage.
“The manager said 30 days; it’s not always 30 days that they have a delinquent bill,” said Robinson. “It says on the bill 30 days,” she said, but noted that she knows people who are 60 and 90 days behind on their water bills “and with $3,000 and $4,000 water bills. And their water is still on.”
“I can assure you that that water is being turned off,” Norfleet told Robinson, after listing the number of requests for shutoff made last December.
In December 2015, Norfleet said, 124 requests for shutoff were made by the finance department — 124 were contracted out to Larry’s Plumbing and 40 went to the village’s public works department. According to a December public works report, the department “performed 30-plus water shutoffs.”
In November 2015, however, Norfleet reported that 48 requests for shutoff went to Larry’s Plumbing and none went to the public works department.
When Robinson asked Norfleet how many of those 124 requests Larry’s Plumbing performed, he said he would follow-up with her.
“We can’t get everybody, but we’re getting some every month,” Norfleet said. “Hopefully, we can get to the point where our own staff can do the shutoffs.” VFP