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Published: Friday, 2/8/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Mayor Bell: Some council water critics have paid bills late or received shut-off warnings

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Mayor Mike Bell looked into the water bills, a move criticized by Council President Joe McNamara. Mayor Mike Bell looked into the water bills, a move criticized by Council President Joe McNamara.
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One day after Toledo City Council lambasted the Bell administration on its plan to charge a $200 across-the-board deposit for new water accounts, several Toledo councilmen got an unsolicited reminder from the mayor’s office that they had unpaid water bills, have paid bills late, or have received multiple shut-off warnings during the last three years.

Riley, left, Sarantou Riley, left, Sarantou
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As of Monday, Councilman Tyrone Riley owed the city the most for water — $5,379 for 19 properties — and has received 48 “final notices prior to disconnect,” according to an investigation ordered by Mayor Mike Bell. Mr. Riley also has been charged late fees 137 times for all those properties. Renters live in some of those homes.

Green Green
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Mr. Riley owes $724 in unpaid water bills for his own home on Searles Road. The city has sent the councilman shut-off notices twice for his home.

Herwat Herwat
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The Bell administration probe included all 12 councilmen and the mayor himself; deputy mayors Steve Herwat, Shirley Green, and Paul Syring; Public Utilities Director Dave Welch, and Commissioner of Utilities Administration Tom Crothers.

City Council President Joe McNamara, who does not owe the city for unpaid water but was late paying his bill in March, 2010, and May, 2012, said creating the list was purely political.

RELATED: Toledo Council members' water bills

“Mike Bell uses the water department like Richard Nixon used the IRS,” Mr. McNamara said. “Richard Nixon had an enemy list and he used the IRS to go after people on that enemy list.”

Mr. McNamara was shown the information on Tuesday evening by Mr. Herwat, but not given a copy of the report. The document was obtained by The Blade on Thursday through a public-records request.

Jen Sorgenfrei, Mr. Bell’s spokesman, said the review of water bill histories was relevant because of the public hearing Monday on the $200 deposit.

“Obviously, there is a concern given some of the comments that came up at the hearing [Monday] that there could be a direct interest by some individuals who may have to pay this deposit for one or more properties following a shut off,” Ms. Sorgenfrei said.

She added: “Nixon never investigated himself; we do.”

During the hearing Monday, Councilman Riley said the deposit had been “on the books since 1953,” but the city recently “decided to enforce it without notifying the public.”

Mr. Riley said some of his renters have not paid him for the water they use.

“If I pay the water bill, that would relieve the tenant of his obligation,” he said. “The leverage is if the renter does not pay, then he is subject to the water being shut off.”

Six councilmen and one of the mayor’s top aides, Ms. Green, have received the city’s final notice before the water gets turned off at their homes.

Councilman George Sarantou, long-time chairman of council’s finance committee and a financial planner, has received water shut-off notices 10 times, but he does not owe the city for unpaid water bills currently.

“Councilman McNamara went to some councilmen and said, ‘You are on a list that the administration brought to my attention,’ and I think that kind of smells like the KGB tactics and that we are going to have leadership by intimidation,” Mr. Sarantou said. “It was very poor judgment on their part. I am very surprised that is the tactic the Bell administration is taking.”

Mr. Sarantou said he has been late on his water bill because of the economy.

“I have never had a turn-off,” he said. “I am sure I have been late at times. Last time I checked, we were in the worst recession since the Great Depression and as a businessman my income goes up and down. I always pay the late fee like everyone else would and I have never called and asked for special treatment or favors.”

Councilman Lindsay Webb has received five final notices for a property on Chalmette Drive and was charged late fees nine times for a home on 128th Street.

“I would say that if they think digging up dirt is going to prevent me from providing leadership on this issue, they are sorely mistaken,” Ms. Webb said. “It just goes to show how desperate they are to raise water rates on our citizens and that they would stoop to that level.”

Ms. Webb said when she married she owned a home as did her husband, so they have retained both houses.

“We are reluctant landlords,” she said. “We pay the water bills and we pass the water bills on to the tenants. ... I think these are my ordinary affairs and we are doing the best job we can in this economy.”

She had a current balance of $169.68 on Monday for the house on 128th Street. The city said that bill is past due.

Councilman Paula Hicks-Hudson, who could not be reached for comment, has received six final notices by the city for a home on Robinwood Avenue — first on June 8, 2010, and the most recent was Dec. 12, 2012. She was also charged late fees 11 times.

Councilman Adam Martinez said he paid the city $8.87 from a past-due water bill, which he learned about after the Bell administration’s investigating. He has been sent a shut-off notice three times in the past.

“I did not realize I had an outstanding balance,” Mr. Martinez said. “As elected officials we are sometimes held to a higher standard. It is a little embarrassing, but sometimes things slip through the cracks.”

Councilman Steven Steel has been sent final notices before being shut off twice. He also was charged late fees eight times.

Councilman Shaun Enright has not received a shut-off notice, but as of Monday he owed the city $439.54 — of which $429.45 was listed as past due. A late fee was levied against him on Jan. 1 and he was sent a “reminder notice” on Jan. 24. Mr. Enright could not be reached for comment.

Councilman Mike Craig as of Monday owed the city $272.94, of which $259.94 was past due. He also has been charged late fees six times.

Councilmen D. Michael Collins and Tom Waniewski were both charged twice for late fees.

Mr. Collins said creating the list backfired on the mayor.

“What the Bell administration has done for clearly political purposes is reprehensible, the fact that it backfired is no excuse,” he said. “McCarthyism is alive and well in the Bell administration.”

Rob Ludeman was the only councilman with a blemish-free water bill record since Jan. 1, 2010. Mr. Herwat also had no late fees or shut-off warnings during that period.

Mr. Ludeman on Monday advocated for changing city rules to allow renters to open their own water accounts.

Mr. Bell has been charged late fees six times for his home on Hopewell Place. Deputy Mayor Syring was charged the late fee eight times.

Utilities Director Welch — who also has a clean water record — on Monday said the $200 deposit would be credited back to customers’ accounts after one year if their accounts are paid up. That is contrary to previous statements that the city would hold the money until the account was closed.

Returning residential users who open accounts would not be charged a new deposit if they have a good record of paying on time, he said. That is also different from earlier statements by the administration. New commercial accounts will continue to be charged the deposit, even when opened by building owners with good credit histories.

Several councilmen appeared Monday to back a proposed ordinance introduced by Ms. Webb that would cap the amount public utilities can charge for security deposits and specify that deposits may not be imposed on customers with good payment histories — terms similar to the new policy announced Monday.

The controversy over the deposit and the unpaid bills for some councilmen comes as the mayor prepares to seek a water-rate increase. The administration hasn’t rolled out a specific proposal.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency recently determined that Toledo’s water system, which serves about 500,000 people in the metropolitan area, relies heavily on equipment that is at or beyond its intended life, raising the possibility of critical water-system failures.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.



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