Solvang’s new utility ordinance enforces against delinquent accounts

Looking to crack down on tenants who leave unpaid water bills behind after unceremoniously vacating their rentals, the city of Solvang is adjusting some of its utility protocols.

In February, the Solvang City Council directed staff to research new ways to approach the enforcement of delinquent water and sewer utility accounts. Staff returned with a proposal at the City Council’s May 28 meeting.

click to enlarge Solvang’s new utility ordinance enforces against delinquent accounts
File photo by Kaori Funahashi
H-2-NOPE: While Solvang is moving forward with a new policy on water and sewer utility agreements between landlords and tenants, the city’s right to shut off a property’s water with proper noticing will remain consistent with state law.

At any given time, there are a handful of residential accounts that are delinquent on their city-owned utility bills, according to the staff report. Most of these accounts carry a balance “in the hundreds of dollars, but current staff is aware of at least one account with a much higher balance.”

To ease Solvang’s difficulty in recovering delinquent bills, City Attorney Chelsea O’Sullivan and staff proposed that the city require all residential accounts going forward be in the property owner’s name rather than the tenant’s name.

“The city is better able to keep track of and enforce against property owners and make sure that they’re paying the bills and fine them if they don’t rather than tenants—who we’ve noticed, when they don’t pay the bill, often leave town,” O’Sullivan said at the May 28 meeting, “and then the city’s stuck [with the bill].”

O’Sullivan explained that staff doesn’t often have the ability to locate a delinquent account holder after they’re no longer a tenant at the property with unpaid water bills, which makes it difficult to “continue to go after them or pursue them in small claims court.” 

“The tenant’s still going to pay the utility, but it will just be a matter … decided through their lease terms rather than the tenant having the utility account with the city in their name,” O’Sullivan said. “You could still get the water shut off if the owner’s not paying.”

O’Sullivan clarified that the strict noticing procedures required to turn a property’s water off would remain consistent with state law regardless of whether staff’s policy revisions get approved.

Councilmember Elizabeth Orona expressed one concern shortly before the proposal was adopted unanimously on a first reading.

“Well, hopefully, landlords aren’t making profit on the transfer of the water costs,” Elizabeth Orona said. “It should be net zero—the same rent or the same outflow for a combined rent and water cost.”

O’Sullivan said that staff added “a little bit of flexibility” in the ordinance, which allows the property owner to designate someone “such as a tenant or whoever they want to get the bill in the mail.”

“So, it [the bill] could still be sent to the tenant, but ultimately, legally, the account is in the owner’s name,” O’Sullivan explained. “So, they’re responsible.”

“I have no problem with a tenant and a landlord making whatever arrangements they want to make,” said Councilmember Robert Clarke. 

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