Water bills whet discussion on ordinances

By Dean Shipley

April 12, 2014

A landlord/property manager in Mt. Sterling stands at odds with the village’s water department about water bills totaling more than $6,000. He argues, if the village is following its own ordinances, how could water bills climb so high?

But are both parties fulfilling their ends of the agreement?

Attorney Steve Brooks owns a number of rental properties in the village and manages a few others with his son and partner, Justin Brooks. Brooks has rental real estate holdings of his own, doing business as McClimans Properties. Over the course of some time, these properties have apparently accrued water bill charges of $6,181.49, according to a letter Brooks received March 21 demanding payment in full in 10 days.

As of this writing, Brooks, on behalf of the clients who owned those properties, has not paid the bill.

The letter says the village’s finance committee met March 7 to discuss the billing of water to his properties and those he manages formerly owned by Floretta McGath. The aforementioned amount was arrived at “after careful and deliberate discussion.”

The committee is demanding payment in full by Monday, March 31 or “the village will not turn on the water to any of the properties in question until full payment is made.”

Brooks, however, feels the village has not followed its own ordinances concerning water bills and wants it to mitigate the charges.

“Because they didn’t do their job,” Brooks said.

Brooks said part of the cost of doing business as a landlord is covering a bill a tenant may leave unpaid when he/she moves out of a rental unit.

Brooks said rental properties he had purchased up to now will be the basis of his retirement. Where some folks invest in stocks and bonds, he chooses to invest in rental real estate. According to his plan, by the time he is ready to retire, the rental units he has mortgaged will be paid for and the rent payments will be his retirement income.

As an attorney, he draws up the agreements between himself as landlord and his tenants. When tenants rent from him, they know they will pay utilities.

If paying a tenant’s delinquent water bill is the “cost of doing business,” as he said, that cost should be — if the water department does its shut-off after non-payment — the cost of a few units of water; somewhere between $70 and $100. Those sums are nowhere near the aforementioned amounts, which have apparently accrued on two rental units formerly owned by Floretta McGath.

At least one property, a two-story double at 46 and 48 E. Columbus St., has been sold to C&M Rentals, according to the county auditor’s records. No liens have been placed on the properties. The village has an option to place a lien on the property for the outstanding water bill, as stated in Section K of the latest edition of water rules adopted by the village in 2012.

Justin Brooks noted those properties at 46 and 48 E. Columbus St. have old-style water meters in their basements and must be read the old-fashioned way by looking directly at them. The meters have not been retrofitted or replaced in order to be read by a hand-held computer-driven reading device.

Brooks said the village has “never contacted him about his tenants being late with a water bill.”

The Brookses claim, because the village has not followed its own ordinances, that the village should mitigate the charges.

Brooks believes that even though the village has not one but two sets of rules governing its water distribution, the village is apparently failing to follow either set. The most recent set of rules, adopted by the council in 2012, contains no language which states this new set of rules.

Briefly stated, the “old” set of water rules are as follows: water bill payment due on the first of the month; late payment, comprised of original bill plus a late fee, due on the 10th. If bill’s not paid by the 20th of the month, the water service is shut off.

According to the “new” rules, adopted in 2012, briefly stated are as follows: water bill payment due on the first of the month; bill is late on the 15th, pay plus late fee. If not paid, then shut off on the 16th.

Brooks argues the village did not notify him of any delinquent water bill payments.

He knows tenants occasionally “stiff” the landlord for utility use. Part of the lease agreement between tenant and landlord is the tenant agrees to pay for the utilities he/she uses while renting the unit. When the tenant defaults on payment of, say a water bill, Brooks knows he has to pay it.

“It is very complicated. He’s (Brooks) made it that way,” Lowell Anderson, Mt. Sterling finance committee chair, said.

“It’s not all our fault. He expects it to go away. It won’t go away,” Anderson said. “It is a complicated mess. It drags on and I don’t know the answer.””

Anderson deferred to law director Mark Pitstick and village administrator, Joe Johnson. Johnson is on vacation until April 15.

Inquiries at the water department were met with the clerk telling the Press she was ordered not to comment.

Law director Mark Pitstick said the village was taking legal action.

“We’re going to take this in front of a judge or magistrate to make a determination,” Pitstick said Thursday. “That’s the course of action were going to do. It’s a pending legal matter.”

Pitstick feels the bills have been accumulating based on numerous tenants and the landlord did not pay it.

‘We can’t allow bills to accumulate over a period of years,” he said.

Brooks said Friday he just wants a set of rules that work for all to abide by.

Dean Shipley can be reached at (740) 852-1616, ext. 17 or via Twitter @DeanAShipley.