WARREN - A rate study done recently for the city's Water Pollution Control Department recommends Warren make property owners, not often transient tenants, responsible for delinquent utility bills, but some property owners are worried this might leave them holding the bag.
The same recommendation was made seven years ago in a state performance audit. Legislation to hold property owners accountable for utility payments then had the support of all 10 council members, but support waned after landlords opposed the idea, and no agreement could be reached on the ordinance's wording.
But the rate study has renewed interest again, and at least four councilmen said they would support legislation that places responsibility for delinquent accounts squarely on the shoulders of property owners. URS Corp., who did the rate study, suggests providing utility services only to the deeded owner of a property or a legal representative.
"Some of the (revenue) shortfall appears to be a result of a significant account collection problem, mostly with rental properties. The current sewer ordinance should be altered to hold property owners responsible for sewer bills. The goal is to reduce revenue losses from rental properties," the study states.
Although the study focused on the wastewater department, residents are billed for water, sewer and trash collection on their water bill. According to figures provided by utilities services director Bob Davis, more than $700,000 is owed from terminated accounts.
However, Davis said the delinquent amounts represent less than 4 percent of the enterprise funds' budgets and the national average is 5 to 10 percent.
Davis is in favor of the legislation.
"I think landlords would be more selective if they are on the hook for these bills," Davis said.
Countywide, it's the property owner that is responsible for unpaid utility bills.
Rex Fee, executive director of the Trumbull County Sanitary Engineer's Office, said some bills go to property owners and others go to tenants, but in the end, delinquencies are certified on the property owner's taxes, making the landlord ultimately responsible for non-payment.
"The landlords argue that there is no way for them to know if a tenant has not paid their bill until the lien is placed on their property. But they can call our department anytime and check to see if their tenants are current to avoid getting hit with a large bill. Owning property is a business just like any other business and it is the county's position that the owner is ultimately responsible," Fee said.
Some other nearby communities that hold property owners responsible for utility bills include Youngstown, Austintown and Girard, according to a list provided by URS. Tom Telego, billing manager for Niles, said the city looked at the idea in 2006, but it never passed.
One local landlord, who did not want his name used, said although most of his tenants are good, he does have several who do not pay their rent. He said the utilities are in his name at most of his properties anyway and he thinks everyone should be responsible for their own properties.
He expressed concern about the proposed legislation because he thinks the city should notify landlords if a tenant falls behind during the transition period.
Davis said similar arguments were made by landlords when similar legislation was discussed in 2003, but the city has since increased the deposit amount required for water service from $25 to $100. Davis said the $100 generally covers the first three months, so anything beyond that should not be accumulating if shut-offs are done at the 30-day and 60-day periods as they should be.
Water pollution control director Tom Angelo said the bill for stormwater fees are sent to the name on the deed. He wants the same formula to be used for water, sewer and trash bills.
Councilmen Al Novak, D-2nd Ward, and Vince Flask, D-5th Ward, said they would be willing to sign for legislation that would place utility bills in property owners' names, but both said they would encourage more discussion to establish parameters.
Councilman Dan Sferra, D-at-large, previously indicated he also would be in favor of the legislation. Sferra said he owns property in Howland and the sewer bill comes to him, not his tenants.
"If my tenant does not pay the bill, I am stuck with it," Sferra said.
Councilman John Brown, D-3rd Ward, said he thinks the property owner requirement should have been included in the legislation passed last month that authorized a 27 percent sewer rate increase.
"We passed a 27 percent increase onto the citizens of Warren and there are hundreds of thousands of dollars slipping through our fingers because renters are not paying their bills. It is not the taxpayers' responsibility to subsidize the business of property ownership" Brown said.
Law Director Greg Hicks, who also is a landlord, said the water department needs to do a better job of not allowing bills to get excessive before the water is shut off.
"As a landlord, I cannot shut off a tenant's water or they can sue me. But the city can shut it off. There has to be a compromise between the responsibility of the landlord, the tenant and the city," Hicks said.