Last year, the Bell administration quietly began to collect a $200 “deposit” on new water accounts. When local Realtors and council members found out, they complained that the fee would sink the recession-battered real estate market, which was just starting to recover.
City utilities director David Welch said the fee his department has collected since December would be credited against the customer’s final bill. He conceded that only some customers have been charged so far.
Council members called the charge an unfair burden on ratepayers that had been imposed without warning. Tea Party types demanded an audit. Council scheduled a public hearing.
The Bell administration backpedaled. People with good credit wouldn’t be charged, officials said. The deposit would be returned after a year, they added. They began to post details about the policy on the department’s Web site.
Administration officials said the security deposit prevents customers from skipping out on their water bills. The city collected 99 percent of its water bills a year ago; it now collects 98 percent.
The day after council put Mayor Bell through the wringer, he made public a list of senior city officials who owe on their water bills, have received late notices, or been threatened with a shut-off notice. Among council members, only Councilman Rob Ludeman has a clean record for the past three years.
According to the report, Councilman Tyrone Riley, who owns 19 properties, owes the city $5,379, has had to pay late fees 137 times, and has gotten 48 disconnection notices. He blamed tenants who don’t pay unless they are threatened with disconnection. He failed to note the $724 he owes and the two shut-off notices he’s received for the house he lives in.
Councilman George Sarantou, a financial planner, blamed the economy for his 10 shut-off notices. He compared Mayor Bell’s tactics to those of the KGB, the notorious secret police of the Soviet era.
Council President Joe McNamara (two late notices in three years) compared the report to the “dirty tricks” of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Member Lindsay Webb (five final notices on one property; nine late charges on another) said she wouldn’t be intimidated by an administration that is “desperate” to “raise water rates on our citizens.” Councilman D. Michael Collins (two late charges) spoke darkly of latter-day “McCarthyism.”
Was the list political payback by a mayor who claims not to be a politician? Was it the opening of his re-election campaign? Was it spiteful and petty? To his credit, Mr. Bell acknowledged getting six late charges of his own.
Whatever else the report may have done, it revealed that council members don’t like to have their dirty laundry on public display. And when it is, they bluster, make excuses, deflect blame, and try to appear the victim.
Toledoans want their elected officials — Mayor Bell and council members — to play by the same rules and get the same treatment as everyone else. Antics such as the water war merely add to the public perception that politicians are all wet.