Newton minimum charges 'unfair'

When it comes to obtaining city services for new homes or rental residences, one Newton landlord says the city's policies aren't fair.

"To get services from the city, you have to pay for all of them. You can't just have electricity, water, sewer or solid waste pick-up — you have to have all of them or you can't get any," said Newton resident Tom Dixon.

Further every city water customer is billed for at least 3,000 gallons of water usage, regardless of how much water they actually consume.

"I think these policies are unfair and unethical to the citizens of our town," Dixon said. "It puts a burden on citizens."

As a landlord who owns multiple rental properties and homes in the city, Dixon said he knows that burden all too well. He may not be alone.

However, changing city policies related to services and minimum usages might remove revenue from city coffers that are already strapped. While the topic has been debated in the past, City Council has never taken action on the matter.

During a public comment session at Newton City Council's Tuesday night meeting, Dixon pointed out that about 1,869 rental housing units exist in Newton, according to Census 2000 data. Each time there is a change of occupancy for one of those rental homes, the city requires the new tenant to obtain all services, and pay at least a minimum fee, regardless of usage for services like water, sewer or electricity.

"This is unfair to the vacating tenant, the incoming tenant and the landlord," Dixon said, arguing that with the assumption that 20 to 50 percent of the city's rental units are vacated each year, the city applies two and sometimes three minimums for one residence in one month.

For one residence, minimum rates for all city services amounts to about $66.93 per month.

If a landlord owns a home that sits vacant for one year, since all services must be obtained, the bill is even higher. Dixon cited a vacant home he owns on Kensington Circle. Through 2010, water meters indicated 100-200 gallons of monthly water consumption and 100-200 gallons of monthly sewer consumption. Total cost for the year, because of the city's 3,000 gallon minimum charge is $573.72. Add garbage pick-up, a service not used at all during the year, and the utility bill increases another $84. Include electricity into the equation, and Dixon said he paid $1,088 in utility bills for a home that sat vacant for 12 months.

"It galled me every month that I had to write that check," he said, adding that for empty homes, landlords should not have to pay for all utilities.

Meanwhile, Dixon said he paid $1,193 in property taxes to the city, in addition to the utility payments.

"Something is just not right about that," he said. "That needs to be fixed."

Dixon also lamented the city's policy for minimum water usage, which he said, requires citizens to pay for water they might not use.

"It was an issue with me in 2007, when we were asking everybody to reduce their water usage," he said, referencing a drought that impacted the region. "The city asked over 2,000 people who pay the minimum fee, to reduce their usage of water, even they were not using the water we were asking them to pay for anyway."

Dixon argued the minimum usage fees help the city pay for usage, as well as the cost of existing infrastructure. With minimum users paying for 3,000 gallons per month, he said it "holds down the water bill for folks who use more than 3,000 gallons."

"It is simply wrong and needs to be fixed," he said.

Council member Wayne Dellinger voiced agreement.

"We have had a number of people that brought up the situation on the minimum charges for a vacant property," he said. "I think we really ought to look at not requiring somebody to have all three services at some point. The last several years have been hard on people with rental property. They have bills like everybody else."

Dellinger said he had nearly a dozen vacant rental properties in the past year, and instead of incurring minimum charges, he had all utilities turned off.

Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax reminded City Council that it isn't powerless to affect change.

"All you have got to do is make a motion," he said. "Whenever this Council is ready to deal with this, you can deal with it. To be a devil's advocate, this is why you didn't make the motion: You saw the money the city was going to lose."

Mullinax said City Council discussed the topic of reducing or eliminating minimums during last year's budget work sessions, but never took action.

"Would you rather have them hooked on to a lesser amount or have them not hooked on at all?" Mullinax said of landlords' options of canceling city services versus paying minimum fees. "As the amount of (the minimum) went down, the cost on the other end went up, and the Council wasn't in favor of it."

"We will keep talking about it," Mullinax continued. "We have been talking about it, but we haven't dealt with it."

Newton City Council discussed the topic further during its Thursday planning workshop.