The city of Moscow should be able to save thousands of dollars in unpaid utility bills by tenants and in the staff time used to manage the process after the City Council’s action Tuesday night.
Moscow loses $41,250 on average each year in unpaid bills and staff time and the cost is spread across all Moscow utility users.
The Moscow City Council approved a resolution authorizing a revised process requiring property owners to execute an agreement when applying for city utility services.
Moscow City Code states that property owners are ultimately responsible for utility bills and that the city is authorized to receive payment from either the property owner or tenant. However, a 1989 Idaho Supreme Court case — City of Grangeville v. Haskin — determined a contractual agreement is required to complement the ordinance’s intent.
“Under the Haskin case, we may not collect from a landlord legally without this change,” City Supervisor Gary Riedner said.
The council passed the resolution, 5-1, with Councilor Gina Taruscio casting the lone dissenting vote.
“I’m frustrated by the fact that we have not had the amount of time that we needed as far as being able to get public feedback and that sort of thing like our normal decision processes are,” Taruscio said. “This is not our shining moment.”
Riedner apologized for the late notice in bringing it before the council but said the code has been in place for the past 40 years and the city is now trying to make it effective.
The Moscow City Council Administrative Committee discussed the item last week. The city sent out a news release and announced the proposed change on social media last week also.
Councilor Art Bettge said the resolution was largely cleaning up a code from decades ago.
“Frankly, in my mind, it’s something like, you go to a restaurant, you don’t just stand up and walk out ‘cause you don’t feel like paying the bill,” Bettge said. “This is the same thing in my mind on a different scale where you pick up and you leave (a residence), you don’t leave outstanding bills.”
This is a way to recoup the unpaid bills from either the property owner or tenant, Bettge said.
Riedner said Friday that nonowner occupied properties, including single-family residences, duplexes and triplexes, would be most affected by the change because tenants typically pay for utility services at those types of properties.
Riedner said the council’s approval comes at a perfect time because the city is in the process of replacing its financial software. According to a city news release Friday, the new financial software was supposed to have been implemented Tuesday.
All customers who use the online billing option will need to reregister their account, providing property owners an opportunity to register for service rather than tenants, who are currently allowed to establish utility billing accounts on the behalf of the owner, according to a different city news release last week. The timing also offers an opportunity for the proposed contract to be executed by all utility bill payers.
In other business, the council renewed its $1 million commitment from the city’s Hamilton Funds to Palouse Ice Rink to assist in the construction of a new ice rink on the south end of town. The council originally committed the $1 million funds in 2016.
Palouse Ice Rink plans to convert the former Northwest River Supplies building on South Main Street into a permanent full-sized ice rink.
The ice rink facility will also house locker rooms, bench seating, a classroom for the Science on Ice program and more, according to a Palouse Ice Rink news release last month. The targeted completion date is October.
The new ice rink will be called Parks Activity Recreation Center after Bill and Donna Parks. The Parks couple agreed to sell the former NRS building to Palouse Ice Rink.
Garrett Cabeza can be reached at (208) 883-4631, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.