Bainbridge approves debt-liability ordinance
BAINBRIDGE -- As in most small towns, Bainbridge can supply its residents with services such as electricity, natural gas, water and sewage, most typically the latter.
What is unique about Bainbridge, though, is that it only seeks financial restitution against the resident in whose name the bill was originally signed, leaving property owners who let rooms and landlords free of any fiscal responsibility in the event a renter skips town.
However, all of that is about to change as Ordinance 2017-3 was passed via 2-1 vote at the July meeting, set to be adopted at the next public session on Aug. 9 upon second reading.
Essentially, the ordinance will not allow utilities to be reactivated until the final bill for the town’s services is paid in full and, in the event a renter leaves without paying, the property owner will now be responsible for satisfying the bill in its entirety before services can be restored and the property effectively rented again.
Losing more than $29,000 over a 10-year period due to the tax-funded bill-pay ($3,000 of which was reported in May as recovered through collection efforts since Jan. 1, or 10.4 percent in five months), two of the three Bainbridge councilmen have sites set on using the ordinance to pass debt liability onto the landlords and property owners, itself a concept that has split government agencies within the nearby Putnam community.
Though the topic was first discussed during a town hall meeting in January (which prompted collection efforts), it sat neglected until May when Board President Jerry Lents again raised the issue, this time saying his mind would not be changed and that the town must begin to realistically recoup the remaining $26,000.
According to Clerk-treasurer Monica Bray, the $2,900 lost each year for 10 years is less than “half of one percent of our total savings.”
Despite the loss affecting less than one-half percent of the town’s overall budget, and despite the fact that more than 10 percent of the sum has already been recovered in a five-month period, councilmen Lents and Joel Thompson were still keen on adopting the ordinance permanently during last week’s meeting.
“We met with the utility board about a month and a half ago, and both of us has had a meeting about it,” Lents said. “I tabled this ordinance last month, and (in that time) the utility board has made a couple of changes to help prevent delinquent utility bills.
“They asked me to go get a second opinion from a second attorney, which I did,” Lents continued, citing an attorney in Greencastle. “He flat told me that ‘yes, the town of Bainbridge can do this’ and if the property owners want to pursue a lawsuit against the town, ‘they will lose.’”
After hearing Lents’ recent efforts, and after listening to the ordinance’s first reading, utility board member Brent Foltz cast doubt on the ordinance and the support of the utility board by saying “the utility board is completely against this.”
“As a citizen -- not just as part of the utility board -- but being a land owner, it doesn’t matter how many good references you get from somebody,” he said. “Somebody loses a job, somebody gets sick, anything like that and then all of that stuff is going to come back on the landlord. And the amount of money, the $29,000 you’re talking about, is over many years and is such a minuscule amount of money compared to the money that’s brought into the town through the utilities; it is such a small percentage that any business that had that much of a loss would be dancing in the streets and would be proud of it.”
“So why is it just sitting there? Why hasn’t the utility board gone after it?” a member of the audience asked.
“We are going after it,” Foltz replied. “Within the last few months, we’ve started working with a debt-collection company that is going after these people ... (and) we get 100 percent of the money we’re owed once they find the people and are able to collect.
“We’ve only been doing this for a few months and it is starting to work,” Foltz continued. “We’ve raised the utility deposits by $75 overall which started July 1 -- this is another thing we’ve done to try to combat this. I feel like we need to give this a chance to work and make sure that it will work. Anything in a house can be disconnected except the sewer. We’ve discussed this with (Lents) -- if we have to pay for sewage, so be it, it’s a state thing that is the responsibility of the landowner, but everything else can be disconnected, so (the delinquency) can be stopped immediately.”
Lents then countered with comments that resulted in a mixed response from those in attendance, stating Ordinance 2017-3 is a “last resort,” despite the fact that ordinances apply at all times.
“This ordinance, which we talked about when we met together, we put things in place to try to stop delinquent bills,” Lents said. “We don’t want to use this unless we absolutely have to -- this is a last resort. This here is going to be the last resort and if you don’t like parts of it, I’m sorry. We’re going to do the second reading next month and adopt.”
Utility Superintendent Eric Gibson, who spoke out on a number of issues during the public session on July 12, expounded on the meetings held between the utility board and the town council, seemingly on behalf of Foltz, provoking the board president in the process.
“When we met, you guys agreed to what the utility board had done,” he said. “You also agreed that you were going to give them ample time to see if these provisions worked. What has since changed that now you are trying to push this ordinance through?”
“What happened, what you said when we met with the utility board, they came up with two things about raising the deposit and kind of cutting back on the ‘gimmies’ where we’re going to give them time or whatever,” Lents replied (to which Gibson interjected there were actually three goals the utility board wanted to attempt after that meeting). “I told them ‘OK, we’ll do that and at our June meeting I won’t read this ordinance. I’m going to table it until next month (July) and then we’re going to do the reading.’”
“And the goals had been set that you have to give them time to come about,” Gibson said.
“That’s why this is a last resort,” Lents responded.
“But if you do the first reading this month and the second reading next month and then vote for it and it passes, it’s enacted,” Gibson explained. “You can’t pick and choose from then on out. It can’t be a last resort.”
“Hopefully it will raise the deposits,” Lents replied.
“But you have to give it time, you need to table this again,” Gibson said, to which Lents replied: “But I’m not.”
Gibson then revamped his efforts to explain the conundrum.
“Once you do a second reading and it’s voted on, it’s in,” Gibson reiterated. “So it doesn’t matter which provisions they’ve used -- you aren’t giving them time and it can’t be a last resort.”
Lents was not swayed.
“We talked about it at the end of May or early June, and we’re actually not going to put this into effect until the second Wednesday in August,” Lents said. “So we’ve given it a couple of months.”
The audience then became restless with “that’s not enough time” audible from many, including Foltz.
Lents then ended the discussion by finishing the motion already on the table, passing the ordinance’s first reading via 2-1 vote (with Curran dissenting).
Updates are anticipated at next month’s regularly-scheduled public session on Aug. 9 at 6:30 p.m. within Bainbridge Town Hall, located at 201 N. Grant Ave., Bainbridge.