‘Liening’ On Landlords

If you are a landlord in the City of Warren and you have a tenant who fails to pay the sewer bill, you do not find out about it until a lien is placed on your property and notice is served.

If that doesn’t seem fair to you, you’re not alone.

Warren City Council doesn’t, either.

Council took action on Monday to direct city administration to explore the possibility of including landlords in the initial billing process.

Councilman John Lewis asked if the landlords could be required to take on the sewer bill. Lewis suggested this solution “as a possible way to subdue the funding issue that is emerging on the sewer bills.”

He clarified his request on Wednesday.

While such a change may work for sewer bills, city staff said such a process is unachievable for water bills.

City Solicitor Andrea Stapleford explained that sewer bills are only sent to tenants and if the bill is not paid for months, and a lien is filed to recoup the bill, the landlord is then notified.

“In the past the Pennsylvania America Water Company billed both water and sewer on the same bill. They have since decided not to do the sewer billing, so the city hired another company to do the billing. No longer are the water and sewer bills tied together. But ordinances declare that if the sewer bill remains unpaid that the water can be turned off. This renders the home unliveable by law,” Lewis said. “My desire for rentals is that the building owner be responsible for both the water and the sewer bills for the building. The rents they charge are uncontrolled and the costs can be passed along to the renter when the lease next changes.”

But until the lien is filed and notification is sent out, the landlord would have no idea the bill was not being paid.

“If the landlord was notified at the outset,” said Stapleford, “(it would) make the collection part easier.”

Lewis explained an added benefit would be that if there were anomalies in the bill, for example a toilet running constantly, “it would be obvious on the bill.” He argues that the water bill is tied to the sewer bill in that manner.

However, the water company bills privately and such an action on the water bill is not feasible.

“If we pass an ordinance (and) are required to include the sewer bill, (are we) changing contracts that already exist?” Councilman Sam Harvey asked. “Can we do this?”

“I would suspect it could only apply prospectively,” said Councilman Gregory Fraser.

“Instead of sending a bill just to the tenant, the bill would also, or instead, go to the landlord and that could start now,” said Stapleford.

Harvey said that if the lease stipulated that the tenant pay the sewer bill the landlord could bill the tenant.

Administration will now explore the issue after receiving council directive to do so in a 5-2 vote with Harvey and Mayor Maurice Cashman voting in opposition.