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Published: Friday, 2/15/2013

Councilman proposes changes for water agency

Plan would let renters open their own accounts

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Councilman Adam Martinez’s legislation would direct the city to send  water bills each month. Councilman Adam Martinez’s legislation would direct the city to send water bills each month.
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Mayor Mike Bell is not ready to make his pitch for another round of water rate increases, which he said is needed to keep the water flowing. But one Toledo City Council member is proposing major changes to the utility, including allowing renters to open their own water accounts.

Council on Tuesday will consider spending $25,000 for a study to determine how high a rate increase Toledoans can afford.

Councilman Adam Martinez said “the melee” over delinquent water bills among councilmen, being researched last week by the mayor’s office, along with a controversial $200 water account deposit applied more widely without notification, prompted him to seek changes. His legislation, expected to be released today, would force the city to send out bills monthly rather than quarterly and also to give water users 30 days to pay their bills — up from 15 business days.

“We need to make sure we give our customers a monthly bill so they know their responsibility,” Mr. Martinez, a commercial real estate broker, said.

Allowing renters to open their own accounts would satisfy calls from property owners, who for years have complained about getting stuck with water bills from their tenants.

“I am not quite prepared for that because I think there needs to be more conversation with stakeholders … but hopefully we will find a positive solution to hold tenants more responsible and be able to go after the individual tenants instead of the landlords,” he said.

Mayor Mike Bell said he does not support any of Mr. Martinez’s proposals and would veto them if approved by council.

Among his reservations is the $2.5 million added cost the city would have each year to switch to monthly billing. Mr. Bell also doesn’t think it would be wise to remove the responsibility of paying for water from the homeowner.

“The only reason they want to switch that over is because they can’t collect that money from their tenants and they want to put that responsibility on the taxpayers, and I don’t think that is fair,” Mr. Bell said. “Right now, 98 percent [of water users] are able to pay their bills, so why would we change the whole policy for 2 percent of the people?”

The city allows people to pay monthly with a voluntary program of estimated bills but only 15 percent of customers have used that method.

Councilman Tyrone Riley, who owns 19 properties in the city, said he would support a monthly billing cycle and allowing renters to open water accounts.

“I would support any legislation holding tenants responsible,” Mr. Riley said. “I believe the tenants incur the expense, as in my cases.” As of last week, Mr. Riley owed the city the $5,379 for water and sewer for his 19 properties.

Councilman Rob Ludeman, a Realtor, said he too would support monthly billing and increasing the billing cycle time. He said it would be “prudent” to shift responsibility to renters.

Councilman George Sarantou said he is open to the idea but questions if it could violate state law, which says “a landlord who is a party to a rental agreement shall … supply running water, reasonable amounts of hot water, and reasonable heat at all times.”

The pending proposed water rate increases — which Mayor Bell during his state of the city address last month said were a necessity to pay for system repairs — could be known next month. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency 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.

Council President Joe McNamara, who is running for mayor, said he is open-minded to Mr. Martinez’s ideas.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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