by Lauren Krupar

Reporter

Cuyahoga Falls -- Renters and landlords in Cuyahoga Falls will see changes in the way the city runs its utilities.

Council approved 10-1 June 18 increased security deposits for all new city-run utility accounts, added fees for items such as bounced checks or off-hour utility turn-ons and imposed a lien for delinquent water and sewer accounts.

Service Director Valerie Wax Carr said the number of delinquent utility accounts on rental property has increased 140 percent since 2003 and the city has accumulated about $1 million in overdue utility bills in the past decade.

Law Director Virgil Arrington said all but one of the changes will be implemented as soon as possible. The change establishing a late fee on bills not paid in full by the due date will not take effect until Sept. 1.

"While we think it's a good idea, we don't want it to come as a shock," Arrington said, adding notices will be sent to customers via their utility bill.

Councilman Doug Flinn (R-4) voted against the ordinance. Flinn had proposed eliminating the proposed lien, an amendment that failed 5-6 with Councilmembers Terry Mader (R-8), Carol Klinger (R-at-large), Mary Ellen Pyke (R-2), Ken Barnhart (R-3) and Flinn in favor of eliminating the lien.

Flinn said he did not feel it "fair" to use a lien -- which is the city's claim on a property for the payment of delinquent utility bills -- without first investigating whether the other changes would be able to cover the amount owed by delinquent accounts.

"The fairer way to do it would be to start with the fees and see how that worked before we use a lien," Flinn said. "Let's walk before we run."

The lien would be applicable only to delinquent water and sewer accounts, which is stipulated in an amendment to the ordinance which Council unanimously approved. Without the amendment, the city would have followed the Ohio Revised Code when dealing with liens, which could have been expanded to include utilities other than water and sewer in the future.

"I understand that from a legal standpoint, we should leave it at what the Ohio Revised Code says," Councilmember Tim Gorbach (D-at-large) said. "[But] we've let everyone know that we're talking about water and sewer."

City officials said they would use a lien only as a last resort -- after attempts to collect the money owed from the account holder or anyone using the utility have failed. A person "adversely affected" by a lien could appeal to the city on the merits of whether the account is delinquent and if all procedures were followed, Arrington said.

All five area landlords who spoke at the June 18 meeting said they were against imposing a lien.

"If people owe bills, they should pay them -- period," Cuyahoga Falls landlord Dennis Bates said, adding he disliked the increased security deposits as well. "This is anti-business, anti-landlord and anti-tenant."

"We don't want to discourage business," Gorbach said. "We want to help residents, but there's a myriad of circumstances that we're trying to get our arms around."

One of those circumstances, Carr said, is a rental population that is 33 percent of the housing stock in the city and a growing number of delinquent accounts.

"We are not in crisis mode, but we cannot sit back and not take a proactive approach," Carr said. "I would be irresponsible, and so would my staff in utility billing, if we did not take action to curb this."

Editor's note: This news was first published June 19 on the newspaper's Web site at www.fallsnewspress.com.

E-mail: lkrupar@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-686-3915