Staff gets some direction on how to handle those delinquent on their water/sewer payments

By Mike Chaldu

The Solvang City Council met for it regular meeting on Monday, Feb. 26, and a big topic on the evening was water and sewer payments — or to be more specific, what to do about residents who are delinquent in those payments.

The council convened as a foursome for this meeting due to the absence of Mayor Pro Tem Dave Brown, although he would briefly participate by proxy. Also, City Manager Randy Murphy appeared by remote.

Presented as the first discussion item for the meeting (Item 6a.Discussion and Possible Action to Provide Direction Regarding Enforcement of Delinquent Water and Sewer Utility Bills 225), it involved city staff seeking direction on how do deal with residents who don’t pay their water/sewer bill.

“Staff is seeking direction from council in enforcing payment of water sewer bills,” explained City Counsel Chelsea O’Sullivan in introducing the item. “Mainly, we’re wondering how aggressive we want to be with enforcement.”

O’Sullivan went on to explain that the city code says that the city cannot disconnect someone’s water until the account is delinquent for 60 days, and even then there’s a policy on giving the person further notice. Also, a delinquent water/sewer customer must be offered an alternative payment plan.

Murphy, speaking remotely and seen on a monitor, said staff wanted to “see what the tolerances are for this,” and added that as long as a customer makes a minimal effort to pay, the water will stay on. He also said one option is to make the property owner responsible for the bill in cases of a tenant being delinquent.

When asked by Councilmember Elizabeth Orona how big a problem it was, Murphy replied “it’s at the lower end of the scale, but it is a problem. It’s a matter of making it fair and equitable to enforce.”

Then, Orona tried to analyze the topic from the point of view of the utility rate-payers.

“I think in looking at this we need to acknowledge that water costs have gone up almost 30 percent,” she said. “It’s important to note, I have a lot of feedback from residents who felt an imposition with the increase. I just want to be fair and understanding.”

In contrast, Councilmember Robert Clarke was less sympathetic to the delinquent payers.

“Waste Management, for instance, doesn’t sit around and discuss this; if you don’t pay for trash service, they don’t pick it up,” he said. “If I don’t pay Culligan, I don’t get my soft water. If I don’t pay Comcast, then I get my internet cut off.

“We have the policy of offering people alternate payment plans. Some get to the point where they agree on a payment plan and still don’t pay. I don’t get it; I’m tired of hearing this.”

Elizabeth Orona then asked about the issue of a rental tenant being delinquent and whether they can make the property owner responsible for that.

“Oh, definitely we make the landlord responsible for it,” O’Sullivan answered. “We cannot by state law charge any subsequent tenants for it.”

Mayor Frank Infante then said, “That’s what brought this up. There was a case where the renter left, after turning the water back on. Later, a big bill came because of that, and the landlord refused to pay it.” Infante then said in his view, they should just make the landlord liable for any delinquent payments in situations like that.

Councilmember Claudia Orona agreed, saying that the landlords would have the resources to protect themselves in that situation.

Despite his absence, Brown, who is a mortgage lender and financial planner by profession, also made some thoughts on the subject as he gave Infante a message beforehand to read at the meeting.

The city can place a lien on this property, which must be paid when transferred,” Brown’s note, read aloud by Infante, began. “In the meantime, this lien can be sold to investors who want to earn the interest rate; this way the investor buys the lien from the city, so we get paid, and now they collect on past due amount knowing they are getting paid for the principle and interest when the property is sold.”

“That’s a collection agency,” Clarke said after the note was read.

“Yes, but that takes us out of it,” replied Infante, who then reiterated his proposal to “make the property owner solely responsible for the water bill, and what they do with the tenant is up to them.” 

In other business:

The Consent Calendar was approved, but not before Infante pulled Item 4g, which involved approval of a joint stormwater report between Buellton and Solvang. The council passed the other items on the calendar before discussion. Infante said he didn’t have a problem with the study, but admitted he didn’t realize that the two cities were involved in one and that Solvang people were involved. After he got clarity on the item, the council voted 4-0 to approve it and put it with the others.

Council approved mid-year budget adjustments for Fiscal Year 2023-24.

Council approved a contract with Cannon Corporation for design services and to provide construction management services for the HCA Middle Well Reliability Project in the amount not to exceed $325,067 plus a 10 percent contingency of $32,506.70 for a total not to exceed amount of $357,573.70 for the term Feb. 22, 2024 to Dec, 31, 2025.

The next City Council meeting will be March 11.