Norfolk council is expected to decide this week how the county will manage unpaid water bills in the future.
On the table is a staff report recommending water arrears be applied against a landlord’s property taxes in the event a tenant defaults. As it stands, Norfolk writes off water arrears deemed uncollectable. When that happens, customers in good standing throughout the system compensate for the loss.
“I struggle to pay my own water bill,” Simcoe Coun. Ian Rabbitts said. “I don’t know why I should pay my neighbour’s water bill when their tenant isn’t paying. We need to make a decision for the greater good.
“That’s going to put a real burden on our ratepayers if we stick with the status quo.”
The matter is of some urgency. Water arrears in Norfolk have spiked since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March.
In a report to council, tax collector Sue Boughner said water arrears totalled $385,920 at the end of 2018 and $457,000 at the end of 2019. By the end of October, treasury staff estimates arrears were in the range of $771,000.
Boughner offered a number of suggestions to help landlords with their new obligations. One involves a waiver tenants can sign allowing landlords to check the tenant’s status with Norfolk’s billing agent, ERTH Solutions, on demand.
Vittoria Coun. Chris VanPaassen isn’t sure this wouldn’t violate legislation regarding personal information and privacy. VanPaassen also isn’t sure if it is right to come back on landlords for the delinquent behaviour of their tenants. VanPaassen said a furniture store can’t go after a landlord when a tenant stops making instalment payments on their purchases.
“Why do you think we’re different?” VanPaassen said.
CAO Jason Burgess replied that these concerns are, at best, theoretical. Fact is, he added, the Municipal Act empowers municipalities to bill landlords in this manner and that what is proposed is standard procedure in most municipalities.
For her part, Mayor Kristal Chopp suggested there are no ideal solutions here. Council, she said, can exercise its options under the Municipal Act and hold landlords responsible or it can keep adding percentage points to water rates that already under intense upward pressure.
Port Rowan Coun. Tom Masschaele worries that holding landlords responsible will deter developers from building affordable housing.
Burgess countered that holding customers in good standing responsible for the non-payment of others is also a significant deterrent to investment, especially when water arrears are as high as they are in Norfolk County.
Burgess added holding landlords liable provides extra incentive for them to perform due diligence on prospective tenants to ensure their credit rating is in order.
Council deferred the matter to its Nov. 17 meeting. There seemed to be agreement that imposing the change Jan. 1 would provide landlords too little time to adjust. Boughner suggested the change could take effect Feb. 1 if council preferred.
At the Nov. 17 council meeting, staff was to report back on other mechanisms for the collection of unpaid water bills.