The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

May 8, 2013

Settling sewer bills: City moving toward plan to collect delinquent commercial bills

By Katie Dahlstrom
Herald Staff Writer

---- — CLINTON — Business owners jeopardize their ability to operate if they don't pay their sewer bills, Rules and Regulations Committee members decided Tuesday.

The city grants a certificate of occupancy or, in the case of an apartment complex, a rental compliance certificate, after inspecting a commercial property and making sure it is up to code. This certificate allows the business to function.

Committee members decided that a commercial property with a bill that has been outstanding for more than 120 days or is more than $2,500 will have its certificate revoked. The ordinance change will need to go through the City Council for final approval.

Current protocol mandates the city place a lien on a property if the utility bill goes unpaid, but the length of this process does not always guarantee the city will be paid and doesn't stop the business from running. Also, properties that go to a tax sale are not always bought, leaving the city out of the money anyway, City Attorney Jeff Farwell told committee members.

If the city is dealing with a liquor-serving establishment that has unpaid bills, the City Council can vote not to renew the business's liquor license. However, the business can still sell liquor while in the appeal process with the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Divison. Revoking the certificate of occupancy could result in a more timely payment.

Committee members debated what the threshold for certificate revocation should be before landing on the 120 day or $2,500 mark. Farwell explained that for some smaller businesses, it might take a few months for the unpaid bills to add up to what would be considered a substantial amount while larger operations might raise red flags after one month of being past due.

Ward 4 Councilman Paul Gassman said he was more concerned that the bill wasn't paid.

"If you didn't pay your bill for six months, it wouldn't matter if it was a small customer at $50 a month or one that uses $100,000 a month. What matters is that you're six months behind," Gassman said.

The rule would only apply to commercial properties, not residential ones. Apartments are classified as residential if every unit has a meter and the tenants are responsible for paying the bills. To be considered commercial, the sewer bill is paid by the landlord.

Committee members discussed some commercial properties such as Miller Ridge Apartments, which has more than $380,000 in unpaid sewer bills, and the former Scrub Pub, which owed $41,000 in overdue sewer payments, as examples of overdue payments that have gotten out of hand.

"We're trying to get compliance before it gets to that point," Farwell said.

Building and Neighborhood Service Official Mike Harmon told committee members that informing business owners what could happen if sewer bills went unpaid would be effective, regardless of the amount or time limit established.

"Most enforcement is letting people know what could happen. And so, whatever the number is, if it's printed on the first bill and the second bill that you could lose your (certificate of occupancy), that's going to motivate people more than us actually having to go out and do anything," Harmon said.