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AWA may only bill landlords

An Altoona Water Authority department director is proposing to eliminate the billing of residential tenants, because of the administrative labor it causes.

Years ago, tenants could receive water bills whenever they had a separate meter, but since 2008, they’ve also needed to have a separate line, Billing Director Ron Becher said at a meeting Thursday.

Now, the authority wants to deal only with landlords, who are ultimately responsible for paying the water bills anyway, Becher said.

“The added extra layer (of dealing with tenants) creates a lot of extra work,” Becher said. It results in his staff “spinning our wheels, chasing our tail,” he said.

Some of the effort involves tenants who come into the office to create accounts, which require photo ID documentation, or to close out accounts, which requires final meter readings, he said.

Some of the effort involves tenants who are delinquent, then move to a new rental location and try to sign up for service, he said.

That puts the authority in a bind, because, while it can’t shut off water to the old place — often now occupied by another tenant who bears no responsibility for the delinquency — it hardly “seems logical” to deny water service for the delinquent tenant’s new location, Becher said.

Some of the effort is spent trying to get tenants who have accounts to pay bills, and if they won’t pay, to get their landlords to pay — although when tenants are delinquent, landlords must be notified by first class mail and are responsible for 90 days at most, he said.

When a bill is in the landlord’s name, even when the tenant may be responsible for paying it, the authority must follow the requirements of the Utility Service Tenants Rights Act, which allows enforcement with tenants only for the most recent 30 days — but not for arrearages, Becher said.

With the proposed change, the authority’s leverage for delinquency would shift to the liening of landlords, Becher said.

That would require sending landlords a letter.

“If I got (such a) letter, I would take care of (the bill),” Becher said.

If a landlord didn’t take care of a bill, the authority could collect on those liens when the properties are sold, solicitor Dave Consiglio said.

If the change is made, “owners will have to adjust their thinking,” Becher said.

The change would require the board to approve a revision of the authority’s rules and procedures.

The authority would provide a transition period of perhaps six months, so landlords and renters could make adjustments, which could include revisions of leases that currently make tenants responsible for paying their water bills, officials said.

The authority should con­­­­­­­­sider “an educational process” with the local landlords’ association, suggested board member Omar Strohm.

The authority can make the proposed change be­cause it is not regulated by the state Public Utility Commission, Consiglio said.

With PUC-regulated utilities, tenants can sign up for service in their own names.

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