City runs dry on testy water utility bylaw

By Geoff Lee

August 25, 2016 12:00 AM

Rental property owner John Vinek made a presentation to council Monday opposing changes to the utility bylaw. He was supported by fellow property owners on his right, Jim Marr, Richard Krygoskwi and Mark Witzaney.

Council has shut off the taps to a second reading of its contentious utility bylaw until further notice following a flood of objections from property owners.
The city wants to put all new water utility accounts in owner’s names to eliminate the cost of its collection process for unpaid bills and reduce administration costs.
Some property owners, like John Vinek, who spoke to council Monday, say that’s just passing the buck to them and he suggests the city raises its deposit fees.
“An owner cannot increase the security deposit to cover utilities,” Vinek said, referring to how much they can legally charge tenants for lost rent or damages.
He said the city, though, can take a security deposit and also charge a $47 fee for reading meters to disconnect and connect services.
“An owner may allocate a portion of damage deposit to utilities, but this leaves less of a deposit to cover damages or unpaid rent,” Vinek told council.
He added if a tenant is evicted, half of the security deposit is used by the time sufficient notice is given.
A city report noted Airdrie, Lethbridge, St. Albert, North Battleford and Red Deer allow accounts to be in either an owner’s or a tenant’s name, but property owners must pay if the tenant fails to.
The city of Lloydminster had 491 accounts in default from 2014-16 totalling $249,445.
Property owners Ron Walker and his wife Chris Benson also made a pitch before council against the proposed change.
They noted the city has a mechanism in place to recover delinquent accounts, which is more efficient than having many landlords trying to navigate the system.
The couple noted if the draft bylaw is passed as is, landlords are not compensated for incurring the costs if a tenant leaves without compensating the owner for water used.
“The biggest thing is, it’s passing the collection of bills onto us,” said Mark Witzaney, who owns a duplex in Alberta and a couple of condos on the Saskatchewan side.
He said as an owner, he would have to go and try to go after tenant to collect the bills.
“Sometimes my tenants leave or they get laid off or they separate and I’ve got problems” he said.
“So they can’t even pay the last part of their rent and all of a sudden I am going to be stuck with this water bill.”
He added water bills are sent out every two or three months and if tenants leave in between that, how does he know how much water they used?
The city argues there is less turnover of owners versus tenants and accounts would only switch if there is a tenant or ownership change.
Currently, 28 per cent of the city’s 10,000 accounts are in a tenant’s name.
The city said the cost to send accounts to collections is $52,900 a year, but they only recoup an average of 22 per cent of the money owed.
A council report says putting water and sewer accounts in owners names will save the city $100,000 a year in administration costs.
“The city never talked about raising the deposit rate,” said Witzaney.
“If they upped the deposit rate, they wouldn’t get nearly the arrears because people want to get their money back.”
Coun. Jason Whiting moved that council postpone second reading after getting a mixed reaction to the bylaw from friends who are property owners and property management companies.
“I felt it was necessary to get some more information about the topic before we actually go through a second and third reading and we all agreed on that today,” he said.
“That’s all we’re asking to engage more with our property owners and residents and administration to get some more clarification before we actually put the final stamp of approval on it.”
Jim Marr who owns a condo on the Saskatchewan side of the city also urges the city to double or triple the deposit on the meter deposit.
He said there’ll be no water conservation whatsoever with their plan if tenants don’t have to pay for water.
“In Saskatchewan there is no way to recover the utility bills—one month’s rent is all you can charge,” he said for a security deposit.”
Marr said he hopes property owners like him can get a petition up against the proposed account change before it comes back to council.

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