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Sun, July 21

Steep water bills shock PV landlords

PRESCOTT VALLEY – When Gwen Janes received a letter from the Prescott Valley Water Department, shock turned to outrage as she discovered herself in arrears of $1,152 in unpaid water bills.

Adding insult to injury, Janes says the department threatened her with a complaint in Justice Court, judgments in Superior Court, liens on her property and a turn-over to a credit reporting agency if those water bills remained unpaid.

Janes never realized the Shamrock sale had changed her liability until she received that letter.

Now, she's requesting an administrative hearing.

"I believe the charges for uncollectible water bills due to the department's irresponsible business practices cannot be dumped on the landlord," Janes says in a Feb. 20 response letter to the department.

She owns nine rental properties, and the overdue water bill amount resulted over a three-year period by "numerous past tenants."

On Jan. 21, 1999, the town formed the Prescott Valley Water District after a 1998 purchase of the Shamrock Water Company.

Shamrock operated under the rules and regulations of the Arizona Corporation Commission.

According to the ACC fixed utilities section, Article 4, under their regulations, a utility company under their jurisdiction may not go after the landlord for payment; only the customer of record on the application can be held responsible for payment.

Janes didn't know about the change in policy, or that she needed to report any tenancy changes.

Janes maintains that half of her tenant's unpaid water bills for which she was responsible came about prior to the town's purchase of Shamrock.

She believes the town cannot make its water regulations retroactive to that purchase.

Janes mentioned that when the town's sewer system went in, Prescott Valley property owners received "numerous communications regarding their new responsibilities for sewer bills."

In a letter dated Dec. 30, 1998, the department informed customers of new day-to-day billing and account services as well as monthly base rate charges.

The letter never mentioned landlord/tenant responsibilities.

During Monday night's landlord/tenant meeting, a roomful of Prescott Valley property owners argued that the district never notified them of their rights and responsibilities as landlords. However, Administrative Services Director Linda Thorson explained that when the Prescott Valley Water Company purchased Shamrock, "we purchased their assets as well as their liabilities."

Prior to Monday's meeting, Thorson said she received four letters and two e-mails regarding this issue.

"We talked to some of these people on the phone. They don't feel that they should be responsible, as owners of the property, for their tenants."

"We have fallen down," said Thorson. She admitted that the department failed in enforcing its own regulations.

Thorson also added that it's difficult keeping track of accounts when two separate accounts exist for each property "We have to bill the owner for sewer and bill their tenants for water. For every tenant out there, we have two accounts on one property," she said.

Thorson said that combining both accounts would make billing and tracking easier.

During Monday's meeting, Thorson presented the following suggestions:

• Increase the tenant's deposit fee;

• Shut off water service after 60 days from billing date instead of the current 90 days;

• Require copy of signed lease, picture ID, and Social Security number or driver's license;

• Provide completed application for service;

• Owner maintains responsibility for the bill.

At the meeting, Town Manager Anthony Mortillaro reminded those present that the purpose of the meeting was to gather ideas in improving the handling of landlord/tenant agreements and the billing of owners only.

"We never signed any of these so-called landlord/tenant agreements," said property owner Phillip Miles. "They're (the town) making us the scapegoats for their bad business practices."

Property owners argued that their opportunity to express their views and opinions about their responsibilities never existed. Town Attorney Ivan Legler said parties discussed this opportunity openly as a condition of the Shamrock bond sale.

Legler explained that in 1998, when the town sold the $25 million bond issue, "it was stated in the beginning that property owners would be responsible."

"Landlord responsibility is not the issue," Lelger reminded the audience.

But landlord responsibility became an issue as citizens continued questioning the attorney. "What is the town faced with if property owners no longer assume responsibility for their tenants' actions?" asked one property owner.

Legler admitted there would be a problem in making those bond payments.

Another point the audience made during the meeting: since the town holds the landlord responsible for the water bill, the tenant will more than likely consume more and conserve less water.

Citizens cited their own suggestions:

• Hire a business consultant and improve the town's computer program in tracking delinquent accounts;

• Increase town collections staff;

• Develop a collections procedure that works;

• Implement good business practices;

• Disconnect water service within 30 days of billing date;

• Raise the sewer and water service deposits.

Janes noticed at the meeting that Mortillaro appeared interested regarding the citizen comments, and that he never seemed defensive.

Janes said that since Mortillaro is new to Prescott Valley, maybe he'd help the town find a quick solution to this landlord/tenant issue.

"I thought, 'he (Mortillaro) cannot be held to blame for what's been going on.' "He's new. But he can be held to blame if he doesn't correct the matter," Janes said.

Contact Briana Lonas at blonas@prescottaz.com

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