Council reluctant to write off unpaid utility bills

Tyler
Tyler Clarke
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Riverbank Development Corporation manager Brian Howell encourages the city’s elected officials at Monday’s meeting to not pass the buck of unpaid water bills on rental properties from the city to the property owners. 

Dissatisfied with the notion of writing off $464,306 in unpaid utility accounts, the city’s elected officials have reluctantly passed the first of the related bylaw’s three readings.

 

Rather than write the whole thing off in one fell swoop at Monday’s city council meeting, Coun. Ted Zurakowski encouraged his colleagues to begin the process with a single reading.

“I think, as a whole, we are responsible to the taxpayers of Prince Albert, and to take a look at that large number at the bottom and say, ‘oh well, this is the way it happens,’ frankly it isn’t good enough,” he said at Monday’s meeting.

“We need to put some controls in place that we recover some of that lost taxpayer dollar.”

One control proposed at Monday’s meeting was the employment of a provision of The Cities Act that was enacted on Jan. 1.

The provision allows municipalities to pass unpaid utility service charges on to the owner of rental properties.

Most if not all of the $464,306 in outstanding utility accounts, which pre-date 2007 and are currently up for a writing-off, are from rental properties, city manager Jim Toye told council.

The city already has the ability to place outstanding utility accounts onto property taxes when it comes to non-rental properties, he noted.

Of the accounts up for a write-off, 1,630 are from 2003 and older. An average of about 225 arrears occurred each year between 2004 and 2006, amounting to a cost to the city of about $50,000 per year.

The bills date back so far because administration “Is hesitant to write off any outstanding balances,” Toye notes in a report to council.

If the bills are still not collected after a few years with the city’s collection agent, who registers the debt on a person’s credit rating, the city gives up.

At Monday’s meeting, Riverbank Development Cooperation manager Brian Howell spoke against shifting the burden of outstanding utility accounts from the city onto rental property owners.

“We do recognize that this is a series issue to the City of Prince Albert and that the sums of money involved are considerable and that there needs to be something done about it, and we are prepared to work with you to do something about it,” he told council.

I think, as a whole, we are responsible to the taxpayers of Prince Albert, and to take a look at that large number at the bottom and say, ‘oh well, this is the way it happens,’ frankly it isn’t good enough. Ted Zurakowski

However, he said that landlords, both in the non-profit and for-profit sectors, would be negatively affected by the shift.

Walking council through a number of different options, Howell noted how he perceived each one to be flawed.

Landlords can leave utility bills with the tenant and take a chance, he reasoned, noting that with the city’s current three-month billing cycle the landlord can be left on the hook for a significant charge before they know the bill is late.

Landlords are limited to damage deposits of only one month -- an amount they often need to recover losses due to property damage.

Taking over the water bill would be an “administrative nightmare,” Howell concluded. 

“This will have serious implications for us and it will be passed on to the tenants either through rents or it will result in us doing less construction and therefore paying less new taxes and having less work and progress in our community.”

Howell reiterated to council that he’s keen on working with the city to find a solution.

One potential solution, which city council passed the first reading of on Monday, would see the deposit required for water and sewer applicants renting within city boundaries going up to $225 from its current $150.

A “strong believer in monthly billings,” Mayor Greg Dionne suggested that monthly billing might help.

Coun. Martin Ring said that forcing renters to go to monthly billing might be a solution, since it’s easier for low-income people to budget for monthly bills than it is quarterly.

On Monday, city council shot down the Cities Act Provision that allows municipalities to pass unpaid utility service charges on to the owner of rental properties.

With the city’s elected officials granting only the first of three bylaw readings at Monday’s meeting to write off $464,306 and to raise rental deposits to $225, the issue is expected to re-emerge at future meetings of council.

Organizations: Prince Albert

Geographic location: Prince Albert

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