The city of Moscow is looking to put a dent in the more than $40,000 it loses each year in unpaid utility bills by tenants and in the staff time used to manage the process. It’s a cost City Supervisor Gary Riedner said is spread across all Moscow utility users.
The Moscow City Council will discuss a proposed change that is expected to reduce the $41,250 average annual loss at its next regular council meeting, which is 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Specifically, the council will review the current utility billing process and consider approving a resolution authorizing a revised process requiring property owners to execute an agreement when applying for city utility services.
Moscow City Code states that property owners are ultimately responsible for utility bills and that the city is authorized to receive payment from either the property owner or tenant. However, a 1989 Idaho Supreme Court case — City of Grangeville v. Haskin — determined a contractual agreement is required to complement the ordinance’s intent.
“Those ordinances are fine, but in order to make them meaningful and thereby meet the City Council’s intent, then you (the city) need to have an agreement with the property owner,” Riedner said.
He said nonowner occupied properties, including single-family residences, duplexes and triplexes, would be most affected by the proposed change because tenants typically pay for utility services at those types of properties.
Moscow Finance Director Sarah Banks said a formal contract is the “missing link” between city and state code declaring property owners responsible for the utility bills and the city enforcing the code.
“Even though our ordinance says it, if we don’t have the signature from the owner, then that written contractual agreement itself is what makes a loophole to where the owner can fight it and get out of having to actually pay the bill,” Banks said.
City Councilor Gina Taruscio said the bulk of the residents who emailed the council about the proposal had questions about it. She said she would like to speak to residents more before voting on the item.
“On a basic level, I do not believe that the city is being responsible with its money if it’s taking a $41,000 hit annually that it’s not responsible for,” Taruscio said. “ … I’m also, though, very concerned for the good of the community that we don’t cause more of a problem or cause more of a conundrum with housing than we should.”
If the council approves the change, Riedner said it would come at a perfect time because the city is in the process of replacing its financial software.
All customers who use the online billing option will need to reregister their account, providing property owners an opportunity to register for service rather than tenants, who are currently allowed to establish utility billing accounts on the behalf of the owner, according to a city news release Wednesday. The timing also offers an opportunity for the proposed contract to be executed by all utility bill payers.
The news release said residents can provide feedback on the proposal at Tuesday’s council meeting at City Hall or before the meeting by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions can be directed to Banks at (208) 883-7016 or email@example.com.
According to a city news release Friday, the new financial software will be implemented starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
During the implementation phase, online utility bill pay by credit card will not be available. Prearranged Automated Clearing House (ACH) network payments will not be affected during the transition.
The city will not be able to accept any forms of utility payments Wednesday through Friday because its system will be completely down for the final transition.
From Feb. 22 through March 1, options for paying February utility bills include calling and paying by credit card over the phone at (208) 883-7040; mailing a check to P.O. Box 9203, Moscow, ID 83843; or dropping off payments at the drop box at City Hall, 206 E. Third St., or in the Rosauers parking lot at 411 N. Main St.
Payment due dates for the current month’s service is the billing date for the next month’s service, but per the current City Council directive, there are no late fees for payments at this time.
The new online bill pay site is scheduled to go live March 2, pending any implementation issues encountered during the transition.