Council clarifies utility shut-off policy
March 21, 2019
The Moorcroft Town Council has further clarified the planned adjustment of the water and sewer ordinances. Mayor Dick Claar reported last week that he had discussed the situation at length with one of the community’s mobile home park owners. He said that she actually advocated the idea of strict shut-off for nonpayment, pulling meters for unused lots, etc.
Claar asked his council and Town Attorney Jim Peck how they should handle situations like the property owner in town who owns three separate commercial residential sites and pays utilities on two, but refuses to pay on the third and is currently in the arrears on that property.
Councilman Ben Glenn suggested working by service address instead of by name, allowing a more accurate discretion of law.
The question of making the property owner responsible for the tenant’s utility bill “is really big right now” with WAM, said Clerk Cheryl Schneider, advising the town that the organization is suggesting that municipalities consider going this route in the future. This would allow the town to put a lien on said property until such time the owner balances the account.
Councilman Paul Smoot asked Peck about the idea. “[They] talk about a lien against the property. They had a bunch of attorneys in that meeting talking about it and the question I have is if that property does owe us we would be in our rights, wouldn’t we, to attach a lien to it so we would be chasing after the property owner by law?” he said.
Peck expressed his strong admonition of WAM’s legally unsupported advice.
“Here’s the problem: Wyoming Supreme Court has said that municipalities have only the authority and power that is set by statute; you can’t just make it up as you go,” he said. “If you go to WAM’s most recent handbook, they say ‘we need to’, but at the very bottom they say, ‘of course the supreme court hasn’t been very favorable about this’. So, you may not prevail; liens exist based on statute authority.”
As an alternative answer to the question, the attorney advised the governing body to enforce, with diligence, their ordinance authorizing shut-off of utilities instead of attempting to place unsupported liens on property. “Don’t mess around; be aggressive about turning utilities off,” he said.
As for making the owner responsible, Peck clarified to the body that there are essentially only two options. One allows only the property owner to turn utilities on, making them the ones responsible; the other allows the tenant to put utilities in their name and they are responsible for the bill.
The body chose to have Peck create the new ordinances with the existing billing system.
The council then moved onto the fees for tapping into the main line. The current cost stands at $3000, which covers installation of the meter as well as the town’s public works crew conducting the work of tapping the main line. That price may be higher if the meter is larger than standard stock.
Mathews discussed the possibility of a $4000 tap on water and a $1000 on sewer, but Glenn, who paid the $3000 for water and $1000 for sewer for his new build recently, advised not raising this fee.
“It’s my personal opinion, but I don’t think it’s fair to ask for $5000 for a tap fee for this little town. The $4000 that I just paid is fine, that’s what it is,” he said.
“I see it as the tap fee’s $3000 including the meter and everything else and $1000 for the sewer, but I hate to see it become an issue if we have 100 homes built across the street. A hundred homes would sure help our water rates go down.”
Smoot strongly agreed with Glenn’s perspective: “[I’ve] spoken with several realtors and they are all saying that empty lots in Moorcroft are worth more than properties that have an old house on them.” The likelihood of someone coming into town and razing an existing building to build something new is better than average, he said, and he suggested that the town would not want the tapping fee to be seen as a detriment to people buying and building in Moorcroft.
Claar advocates enforcing fines and shutting off utilities under ordinance for nonpayment. “Shutting the water off gets people to prioritize their bills; ours is as important as anybody else’s so I think the council will be aggressive,” he says.
He reiterates his ambivalence about the commercial rental properties with one meter: “I’m not sure how we’ll address that yet. It’s kind of a tricky situation and it’s not going to be popular.”
He also explains the urgency of ensuring everyone pays their share of the municipal water investment fees, saying, “Our water reserves are going to disappear with the Madison well down.”
Apparently, Moorcroft is facing an approximately $20,000 cost to run a rig to the well site, pull the pump and motor to ascertain the problem and get the well back online this week if possible. Added to this, the town is currently dealing with several frozen lines between the meters and tap points on the main water line due to people allowing their private water lines from the meter into the home to freeze.
Public works has been able to thaw the meter to the tap on most of the lines, but if the private line is not thawed, the entire line will simply refreeze.