The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

March 22, 2014

Leveraging sewer payments

By Brenden West Assistant Editor
The Clinton Herald

---- — By Brenden West

Assistant Editor

CLINTON — State senators are on the brink of debating a bill that may not have statewide ramifications, but if passed it will go a long way to helping local governments.

State Reps. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, and Steve Olson, R-DeWitt, co-sponsored the legislation allowing cities with private water utilities — including Clinton and several cities in Scott County — to contract for better enforcement of delinquent bill payments. This is a unique problem to the Gateway and Quad-City regions, since these are the only places in Iowa where contracted water utility arrangements exist.

However, Wolfe said there has been plenty of traction for the law in Des Moines since it was introduced to legislators last month.

“Over the past three years, there’s been a lot of publicity about how we can fix this,” Wolfe said. “It’s kind of a big deal because there’s no way to enforce our sewer bill collection here in Clinton.”

Typically, Wolfe said she prefers to let city issues resolve themselves. Delinquent utility payments have long existed in Clinton, ever since the city opted to contract with Iowa-American Water in the early 1980s.

The problem grew into a hindrance over time. Clinton still provides residents their sewer utility, and since water and sewer are interrelated, the agreement with Iowa-American Water took away the city’s authority to shut off unpaid residential utilities.

The city tried to enforce this by placing a lien on homes.

This would have made property sales impossible for homeowners with outdated utility payments.

When the housing market crashed during the mid-2000s, Wolfe said the city met another delinquent dead end. By now, she estimated the city has over $3 million in outstanding bills not received.

“The accrued billing for sewer just kept adding up,” she said. “They’re trying to get a grip on it. They’re just desperately trying to figure out some way to do this.”

Ideas for the bill began last year, but given the timing of the idea, Wolfe said she could not have forms ready to make the bill into a reality during that session. She proposed House File 2183 on the floor this year, and with bi-partisan support from Olson, she said the bill was well-received on the House floor.

“Normally this type of narrowly tailored bill isn’t going to move forward,” Wolfe said. “I have a good relationship with many Republican House members, and I think that helped move it along. This really was bi-partisan cooperation of both members of the House.”

The law allows cities to leverage a contract agreement with the private utilities for collecting delinquent wastewater, sewer, stormwater drainage or sewer treatment bills.

After that approval, it went into State Sen. Rita Hart’s hands in the senate. That branch proposed an amendment and is slated to approve the bill next week. After it goes back to the house for approval, it will go to Gov. Terry Branstad’s desk for him to sign into law.

If the process moves quickly, Clinton could begin enforcing the law by July 1 this year. However, there are going to be a few holdups, Wolfe said.

“We have to make sure the rules we already have in effect aren’t conflicted,” she said. “So it’s going to take some time to draft a properly worded agreement.

“These other cities that work with Iowa-American Water will have to open discussions for their contractual agreements.”

The city, she added, plans to establish a task force made up of city leaders and private citizens. Those people would dictate what Clinton’s contract with Iowa-American Water should say.

Wolfe expects a contract to be finalized this fall. Narrow scope aside, the law will have a vast impact for Clinton residents.

“It’s nice that we got this done,” Wolfe said.