The Clarkfield City Council spent much of their meeting Tuesday night hammering out the bulk of a new water and sewer ordinance.
The previous ordinance's governing water and sewer use has been in need of an update for some time. With the city's impending implementation of a new automatic-read water meter system and a joint switch from a quarterly billing cycle to a monthly billing cycle set to occur, the city believed this was the appropriate time to do a complete overhaul of the related ordinance.
During the meeting, City Administrator Scott Weske compiled a rough draft of the ordinance and Public Works Director Jeff Lobdell presented his recommended inclusions where the Public Works Department is concerned.
The council expects to review a draft of the completed ordinance at their next meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 18. A public hearing of the ordinance will be expected to occur Tuesday, Oct. 2, with the council voting on the final ordinance that night.
A major issue for the council was how the city will proceed with unpaid utility bills for rental properties in the future. In this matter, the council—after researching Minnesota state statutes and reviewing information provided by the League of Minnesota Cities—decided that the responsibility for unpaid utilities ultimately falls on the owner of the property, if a tenant is unable, or unwilling to pay.
As for broader application of the ordinance, the council focused primarily on sections in the ordinance concerned with billing and payment and disconnections for late payment.
The council expects the new billing and payment schedule will occur in this manner:
Meters will be read electronically by the twenty-fifth of each month, or on the closest business day. Bills should be in the hands of customers by the first of each month. After 20 days of non-payment, or on the twentieth of the month, that bill will be considered past due. If past due, a notice will be mailed. Ten days after a bill is past due, shutoff of water services will occur.
In the case of rental properties, both the owner and tenant will receive copies of the monthly water and sewer bill and any past due notices, with all bills in the name of the property owner.
If service is terminated, all bills must be paid up-to-date along with a turn-on charge (the amount of that fee has yet to be set by the council). If an owner continues with non-payment of the utility, the city will assess that property with the amount for the water charges, including all penalties, to be collected in property tax.
Again, in the instance of rental properties, the city reviewed the problems faced by all cities in processing utility billing and payment. Most revolve around the fact that the city is not a party to the rental lease and simply cannot identify and track tenants.
Page 2 of 2 - By Minnesota statute, the city cannot shut off water services to a new tenant in pursuance of an unpaid bill by the previous tenant, or the owner of the property. Also by statute, a property cannot be rented without water service. Yet, if a new tenant does wish to pay a delinquent bill for connection of service, that payment may qualify as rent—again, according to Minnesota statute.
Said Mayor Gene Kockelman, "The tax payers of Clarkfield should not have to pay for unpaid water bills. That's the whole idea with this thing."
Musing on the effects this ordinance might have on rental properties, councilman Neil Linscheid foresees higher security deposits being asked for to cover the cost of a possible delinquent payment.
Though the council tabled discussion, for now, on updating the fee schedule for water rates (a $28/month base rate with $4.23 per 1000 gal. of water usage was agreed upon when the council decided to switch to monthly billing), the relatively low amount of any one bill versus the old quarterly system should make payment disputes more manageable with the dollar amounts being disputed much lower.