|CITY POLICY DEBATE|
TO NEGOTIATE OR NOT 2-4-15 LMS
A January request to waive sewer and water payment rules has continued to raise questions as the Salmon City Council considers changes to an ordinance that deals with delinquent sewer and water accounts and shut off procedures.
Ordinance 15-797 details policies regarding refundable deposits, accounts that fall into arrears, the time frame that constitutes delinquency plus disconnect and reconnect services. The ordinance also redirects the responsibility of code enforcement authority from the City Clerk to the City Council.
The council’s February 4 meeting included the second of three readings required to change a city ordinance. The council spent almost half an hour discussing a number of questions posed by Council President Jim Baker. He said he had no problem with the shift in code enforcement responsibilities but did question there being no clause in the ordinance allowing negotiation of individual late payment cases and thought written definitions of “arrears” and “delinquency” should be included.
The argument against including a negotiation clause was that the policy of treating everyone equally to assure consistency would be lost and that if one utility user is granted exceptions outside what is written in city codes all users would be entitled to the same treatment.
It was pointed out that chronic late payment for utility services puts a burden on those who do pay on time in that they ultimately have to carry the load for unpaid bills.
The amount of time allowed before the city turns off the services was also debated. Right now, the number of delinquent days allowed before cessation of services amounts to two months. Paying one month’s bill will allow for a continuation of services but will also mean the user is still a month behind in payments. Baker and Councilman Russ Chinske thought that policy is too stringent. Councilman Rob Jackson thought it should be at least two months before cut off. Baker said he needs more information before he can support the ordinance as written. He also said $50,000 in unpaid bills is currently owed to the city and he would like to look at the cause. He was told the amount is cumulative and goes back many years.
City records show an average of 125 non payments per month. Baker calculated that number represents ten percent of utility users. The records also show the monthly late payment list almost always contains the same names and that most of those customers usually delay payment until the final notice door hanger appears on their door. One change in the amended ordinance being considered is elimination of door hangers.
City Clerk Mary Benton said that if a new name appears on the monthly list the city will phone the user to ascertain whether lack of payment is an oversight or not. She said she has spoken with Jerry Mason of the Association of Idaho Cities and that he was flabbergasted at this city’s number of non-payments. Benton quoted Mason as saying “The easier you make it for them not to pay their bills the more behind they’re going to get.”
Councilman Ken Hill commented that unless the city gets tough the same problem will go on forever. He said if people are really in desperate straits there are entities that can help.
Councilman Fred Waidely said he doesn’t think being a welfare organization is a role the city should assume. He said the city is providing water services and the users have to pay for those services because if they don’t nobody gets water. Waidely said the city should not be in the business of an individual’s financial responsibilities.
Councilman Jim Bockelman mentioned the alternative of moving to the county, drilling a well, putting in a septic system and paying for all associated costs which could easily amount to $30,000. Over a 30 year period the monthly payment would be approximately what city services cost per month. He pointed out that with the three reading rule there is still time to make changes to the ordinance such as adding a negotiation clause if that’s what the council wants to do. Bockelman made a motion to approve the second reading of the ordinance as written. It passed on a four to two vote. Those in favor of passing the second reading were Bockelman, Chinske, Waidely and Hill. Jackson and Baker cast the ‘no’ votes.
Bockelman then moved to disallow for now, the city policy waiver requested by Rowdy Davis of the Calvary Church on behalf of Eliza Jernigan, due to no one being in attendance to present the information for which the council asked at its January 21 meeting. The request was to allow Ms. Jernigan to move into a house she co-owns before back payments on sewer and water bills are paid. The council unanimously passed the motion.
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