ELDON, Mo. - The Board of Aldermen revised its policy on water and sewer bill collections at its Nov. 26 meeting, and not everyone is happy about it.
The controversy stems for the most part from a 2010 ordinance that redesigned the city's water and sewer rate structure, not from the most recent changes, said City Clerk Fran Suttmoller.
The two new ordinances, introduced at the board's Nov. 12 meeting, now align Eldon's municipal code regarding the bill collections with Missouri state statute, making both a tenant and a landlord responsible for water and sewer bills accrued at a property.
"We have always tried not to make the landlord or homeowner responsible for their tenants' unpaid bills, but you cannot adopt part of the state statute and not the other," Suttmoller said.
The city could have chosen not to adopt the state statute at all, but Suttmoller said that would usually result in some bills going entirely unpaid.
The new ordinances make the landlord or homeowner responsible for up to and no more than 90 days of unpaid bills if the city is unable to collect from the tenant. The ordinance concerning water usage allows the city to file a suit against a property owner for unpaid water bills; and the ordinance concerning sewer usage rewords the previous policy that allows the city to put a lien on the property for the sewer portion of the bill - which would require a title company to collect and pay back the unpaid amount before the property could be sold - to match the state statute.
While the city's previous sewer policy already allowed for property liens, the joint responsibility for water bills is new.
"We turn our unpaid bills over to a collection agency, and we might receive payment on one out of every 50 or 100 of them," Suttmoller said of the city's policy as it stood before the new ordinance.
The city was also able to withhold turning on water service to a property until all balances were paid so a landlord could not rent out a property to a new tenant.
"Some of them choose not to rent them out anymore," Suttmoller explained, which has resulted in many rental properties remaining vacant. Those vacant properties were at the center of the controversy over the 2010 ordinance, which established a minimum monthly charge of $41.93 for water and sewer usage of 0 to 1,000 gallons, even if no water is used.
"The landlords who are upset now didn't agree with the original 2010 ordinance of billing landlords or homeowners for vacant properties," Suttmoller said. "The only reason it's related is because some of those vacant houses out there have been getting a bill every month ... These new ordinances are now trying to collect on it.
"This is just so that we can collect the thousands of dollars out there that are owed to the city per the original ordinance."
Joan Jungmeyer, one of 17 plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the city regarding the 2010 ordinance and later dismissed, attributed what she believes to be Eldon's bad relationship between landlords and the water department at the board's Nov. 12 meeting, addressing both the new ordinances and the 2010 ordinance.
"It almost verges on the hinge of profiteering by the city. A vacant meter bill? You're paying for 1,000 gallons of water with a meter that's turned off ... And you're going into this ordinance again to pile these charges on top of charges. And in the end run, this comes back and impacts all these people that live and work in Eldon," Jungmeyer said. "Every time you pile these expenses on top of a landlord that is a responsible person that has responsible (tenants), you raise their rent. It's as simple as that. It may be good for the city to have all this income that comes from this type of forcing it out of people for the city employees to generate money, but for the city it is a blight."
According to Suttmoller, the recent changes will affect only a small number of Eldon's landlords. She estimated that of the 100 to 200 properties that currently have outstanding water bills, "maybe five of those are landlords; the rest are just homeowners."
"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the landlords here in town do pay their bills even if the property is vacant," she continued.
Discord among the aldermen on the bill's first reading Nov. 12 led to a tie, which Mayor Ron Bly broke with a vote in favor of the bill.
Alderman Kim Knopf echoed the sentiment that Eldon has a bad relationship with landlords and asked the other aldermen to consider tabling the topic until they could find a way to satisfy the concerned landlords.
"The city has developed a serious reputation of not being in good favor and causing a lot of distrust toward the community of landlords, and I think we need to work on changing that," Knopf said. "I think we need to build a relationship with the many landlords in the city of Eldon who want to do positive things ... I don't see them standing in line to buy these properties when they know there's a guarantee that this property is going to cost them $700-plus per month in a single, solitary water-sewer bill."
However, the bills passed their second reading on a 4-2 vote to become ordinance at the board's Nov. 26 meeting.