Collingwood staff have collected over $ 100,000 in unpaid water bills in the past four months.
It took more work than expected, however, according to the finance department, staff are therefore asking the board to support a change in the way arrears are handled.
In June, Collingwood Treasurer Monica Quinlan said there were more than $ 230,000 in unpaid water and wastewater bills, which had been rising since 2017.
On May 25, the arrears were split almost 50/50 between tenant accounts ($ 126,400 on 256 accounts) and landlord accounts ($ 108,700 on 438 accounts).
Collecting $ 70,000 in arrears on owners’ accounts took approximately five hours for treasury staff. The city transferred 48 overdue amounts to the property tax roll.
The owners, whether they rent the property or live in it, are responsible for the water and wastewater bill. In the event of non-payment, arrears can be added to the property tax bill.
Staff found collection from tenants more difficult.
According to financial analyst Lara Janzen, the process of collecting $ 40,000 in arrears took about 350 hours of work in several departments. During that time, 53 overdue accounts were settled.
In order to collect the arrears, the city issued 54 closure notices and shut down water service to a property.
As of September 15, $ 124,000 in water and wastewater arrears were still owed to the city, with $ 86,000 (69%) in overdue bills related to tenant accounts and $ 38,000 related to tenant accounts. owners.
“Only about 10% of the city’s water accounts are tenants, but that 10% represents 70% of the arrears,” Janzen said at the meeting of the Standing Committee on Business and Community Services on Monday (November 1).
Quinlan said collecting arrears, especially from tenants, was difficult for several reasons, one of the main ones being the accumulation of arrears over time. Creating individual payment plans has proven to be cumbersome for city staff to keep track of on an ongoing basis.
“It was really a lot more work than any of us ever expected,” she said. “To be completely honest, the build-up was a big part of it.”
While staff focused on collecting arrears, they also worked on ways to “do this process better,” Janzen told the committee.
Director of Finance Jennifer Graham presented three ideas for improving the collection system to avoid the accumulation of arrears in the future.
One option would be to maintain the status quo, but require tenants to sign consent forms allowing the city to disclose account balances to landlords. Currently, landlords are not notified when a tenant’s account is overdue until a disconnection notice is issued. The overdue amount, if unpaid, is added to the owners’ tax bill.
Another option presented by staff was to ban tenant accounts altogether and require all water and wastewater accounts to be in the landlord’s name.
Graham said staff were recommending a third option, which was to stop issuing water cut notices and automatically carry over arrears of up to $ 300 or 90 days overdue on the property tax bill.
According to finance staff, there are many instances where the city cannot shut off the water for a tenant no matter how much the overdue account is because they live in a multi-unit building.
“We will always sue tenants, but there is a limit to that,” Quinlan said. “The owners would be aware, in advance, of the amounts that accumulate. ”
The staff recommended option would also require the tenant and landlord to be registered on the account as primary and secondary account holders. Both would receive late notices and could access the account balance at any time.
Mayor Brian Saunderson said he believes the change would go a long way in resolving concerns expressed to council by the owners.
“This will help make sure these issues are addressed before the stakes get too high,” Saunderson said.
Councilor Mariane McLeod, chair of the corporate and community services committee, asked what tools would be left to owners to collect overdue bills if the city no longer issued a closure notice.
Treasurer Quinlan said in many cases the city was unable to shut off the water anyway, and although the owners knew they were responsible for the arrears, they were unsure how many had gone. accumulated.
The committee supported staff’s recommendation to stop issuing closure notices, requiring tenants to sign consent forms to share account balance with landlord and automatically add overdue arrears. for 90 days or amounting to $ 300 in property tax. invoice.
The decision will have to be finalized by a vote of the board at a future board meeting.