Village president chided after relying on PSC for analysis of disputed water charges passed to landlord
Fredonia Village President Don Dohrwardt thought he would save some tax dollars when researching how to handle a dispute over responsibility for water bills.
That frugality got Dohrwardt in a bit of hot water at last week’s Village Board meeting.
At a February board meeting, village officials were challenged on their practice of passing unpaid municipal water bills of rental tenants on to the landlord.
Property owner Larry Waskiewicz told officials that the village added more than $1,000 to his tax bill at the end of last year to cover the unpaid water bills of his tenants.
Rather than making the payments the responsibility of the landlord, Waskiewicz asked that the village notify the tenants that their service would be disconnected until the bills were paid.
A village ordinance gives the village the authority to issue disconnection notices, but a long-standing practice of the village has been that landlords will be held responsible for water bill payments.
If payment is not received, the charges are placed on the landlord’s tax bill.
At the heart of the debate was the question of whether the tenant or the landlord is under a contractual arrangement with the village for water service.
Following a lengthy discussion last month, trustees authorized Dohrwardt to contact the village attorney for an opinion on the correct procedure in such cases.
Since that last meeting, Dohrwardt obtained an opinion from Bradley Rose, a consumer analyst with the Public Service Commission noting that the village is under no obligation to disconnect water service in the case of delinquent bills.
Rose said the village is within its authority to place unpaid water bills on the landowner’s tax bill according to state statutes provided the policy is clearly spelled out.
He said the policy was incorporated in the rate hike paperwork submitted to the PSC last year.
“The utility disconnection policy should be applied to the entire customer base equally, to make sure there is no discrimination,” Rose wrote.
After getting input from the PSC, Dohrwardt said he chose not to incur the expense of consulting the village attorney.
“The village attorney is not a specialist in the field,” he told trustees and Waskiewicz last week.
“I don’t think the attorney would come up with a better opinion than the expert from the PSC.”
Dohrwardt said village ordinances say either approach is acceptable.
When Waskiewicz challenged Dohrwardt for not obtaining a ruling from the village attorney on the issue he found an ally in Trustee Jill Bertram.
“Because it was a motion, I do feel we should have followed it,” Bertram said on the failure to consult with the attorney.
Trustees then restated their directive that the village attorney be consulted on the matter, with Dohrwardt casting the lone vote against the motion.
“I think it is a waste of money,” he said following the vote.
Dohrwardt then asked Waskiewicz whether he would consider the attorney’s ruling the final word on the matter.
“Will you accept it if we follow the attorney’s advice?” he asked.
Waskiewicz, a former village trustee, refused to commit.
“I can’t answer that question until I hear what the attorney says. I don’t even know what you are going to ask the attorney,” Waskiewicz said.