HANFORD — The Hanford City Council was packed Tuesday, but not for the cannabis-related agenda item, like most would guess; property owners were there to voice their opinions against a proposed resolution that would make them responsible if their tenants didn’t pay their water bill.
The city provides various utilities services for which they charge fees, including water and trash pick-up. A recent delinquencies utilities charge report found that there are a total of 192 delinquent accounts in the city out of around 17,000 accounts that total up to $35,987 in delinquencies.
A bill is considered delinquent when it has not been paid after 60 days.
A public hearing was held at Tuesday’s meeting, where council discussed adopting a resolution intended to transfer delinquent utilities charges to the property owner and tack-on the delinquent fees to the owner’s property tax bill.
City Manager Darrel Pyle said delinquent charges had simply been written-off in prior years, meaning the city lost approximately $100,000 a year in delinquent utilities charges every year for the last decade.
“That means we have to raise the rates to the other utility customers by that same $100,000 to cover the shortfall,” Pyle said.
John Doyel, deputy public works director, told council that before the city raised its rates over a year ago, the delinquencies caused expenditures to exceed revenue in the department, and money had to be taken out of reserves to make up the money lost.
Prior to Tuesday's public hearing, city staff mailed notices on July 5 to the property owners.
Nine different property owners gave comments during the public hearing asking council to reject the request to make them responsible for their tenants’ unpaid bills.
The main reason property owners gave against the resolution was that they have nothing to do with the tenants’ agreements with the city, and should not be held responsible solely for the reason of owning the property.
In some cases, the tenants had left months prior and the property owners had barely received a notice a few weeks ago saying they would have to pay. They also criticized the city for letting the delinquencies go on too long, with some bills exceeding $400.
In other cases, property owners had already spent thousands of dollars evicting tenants from their properties before taking another hit when told they would have to pay their tenants’ delinquent water bills.
Finance Manager Paula Lofgren said the finance department tries to exhaust every resource to collect from customers, including phone calls and physically trying to trace them down.
Vice Mayor Sue Sorensen said she saw a problem with the 60-day delinquency format because it gives the renter plenty of time to move out of the property and knowingly decide not to pay their bills.
“If you’re going to make the property owner responsible, it’s just got to be written better that there’s a better right for the property owner to be involved,” Sorensen said. “Either they can get the information easy or they’ve got to be in the loop sooner.”
Different ideas floated around and were discussed by council about how to fix the problem in a way that’s fair to the property owners.
One idea was the property owner getting notified when the tenant gets a delinquency notice, so the owner can give the tenant a “three-day notice or quit,” meaning they have three days to pay or leave the property.
Another idea was property owners collecting and holding money for the bill prior to the tenant moving in, similar to a security deposit.
The problem with sending out delinquency notices to the property owners is that it would double the number of notices, Pyle said, bringing the total from 300-600 notices a month to 600-1,200 notices a month. The scenario would take more time and resources from staff.
Pyle also said the city does everything it can to stop the service and keep the bills from getting too high, but the city has a problem with tenants illegally reconnecting their water after having it shut off.
“It’s our goal to never let [the bills] get that big,” Pyle said. “But we have people out there that steal public utilities on a regular basis, and that’s why you see some of those accounts as big as they are.”
In the end, council agreed the resolution would place an undue burden on the property owners and Councilman Justin Mendes moved to reject the resolution, which was unanimously backed by the rest of council.
The delinquent bills will now get rolled over to a collection agency and most likely be written-off until another solution is found.