By Jordan Cohen
“Why should the residents of Niles have to pay someone else’s delinquent bills? ... We didn’t put the tenant there — you did,” said Niles Councilman Steve Papalas, D-at-large, responding to landlords who didn’t like an ordinance holding landlords responsible for delinquent city utility bills run up by their tenants.
The ordinance could wind up in court.
City council passed the ordinance as an emergency measure at its meeting Wednesday despite protests from numerous landlords who crowded council chambers. The vote was unanimous.
Mayor Ralph Infante said Niles is losing “an average of $150,000 a year over the past 10 years” from nonpayment of utility bills. Niles provides water, electric and sewer services to residents and businesses.
Several landlords challenged Infante to prove that tenants are responsible for the bulk of the delinquencies. The mayor did not provide any proof or documentation but offered an estimate that “75 [percent] to 80 percent” of the delinquencies were from tenants.
Should landlords fail to pay their tenants’ delinquent utilities, the ordinance authorizes the city to shut off service, to refuse to initiate or restore it, or to place a lien against the property for the amount that is owed.
One of the landlords, Rodney Freel, said he and his counterparts will consider suing the city.
“Making landlords responsible won’t solve the problems,” said Freel, a Niles firefighter. Freel, the owner of what he described as “numerous properties,” recently formed a landlords association and plans to discuss the possibility of legal action with association members.
“This is going to force me to limit my investment in my properties,” Freel said after the meeting. “In this economy, there is only so much you can charge for rent.”
Tom Telego, billing office manager, said that prior to passing the ordinance, the city could only attempt to recover money from tenants through a collection agency. “With a homeowner, we could shut off [utilities] but we couldn’t with a landlord who could always bring in a new tenant and we’d have to provide service.”
The ordinance also applies to commercial properties, but the manager of Niles’ largest shopping area, Eastwood Mall, said that he does not expect it to impact operations.
“We have safeguards and procedures in place and we’ve been pretty efficient in managing our tenant responsibilities,” said Ken Kollar, mall general manager. Nonetheless, Kollar said the Cafaro Corporation, the mall’s owner, will likely contact the city to discuss the new regulations.
The ordinance takes effect in 30 days, but one councilman held out hope that there could be some changes despite the vote. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see us tweak this thing before it’s all over,” said Michael Lastic, D-at-large.