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Gainesville wants law to cover unpaid utility bills
City asks legislators to make landlords responsible when tenants dont pay
Gainesville city worker Alonza Grayble checks the numbers on a water meter Wednesday. Gainesville officials asked Georgia lawmakers to consider legislation that would make property owners responsible for water and sewer bills that tenants leave unpaid. - photo by Tom Reed

What if landlords were held accountable for their tenants’ sins?

Last week, Gainesville officials asked state legislators to consider amending state law to hold landowners responsible for unpaid utility bills their tenants leave behind.

Unpaid water and sewer bills are draining the city’s Public Utilities department, Mayor Myrtle Figueras told the members of the General Assembly who represent Hall County.

"What the city is saying is that we’re losing — completely," Figueras said in a meeting Dec. 11 with the local delegation.

Gainesville has $148,742.39 worth of unpaid water and sewer bills left from fiscal year 2008, which ended July 1, according to Tina Wetherford, finance manager for the utility department.

The debt is 0.28 percent of the $52.4 million budget the department had that fiscal year, and is less than unpaid bills carried in previous years, according to Wetherford.

But in a tight budget year with water sales revenue down, every drop of income counts. The department’s budget is considerably smaller this fiscal year — down about $5 million — and with water sales down 20 percent, unpaid bills could be a bigger blow to the budget.

State law used to allow utility departments to hold property owners liable for any outstanding debt owed, Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall said. But the law no longer allows that liability for residential property.

"If somebody just runs off on their bill, we just have to eat it," Randall said.

Wetherford says unpaid bills currently do not affect customers’ water and sewer rates, but that could change in the future.

"Currently, it’s not affecting the rate calculation," she said. "We’ve been absorbing it, but, you know, it just depends on how tight the budget is."

Lawmakers did not jump at the city’s proposal last week. They discussed variations of the proposal with city officials, but none of them expressed support for the idea as presented by the city.

"It’ll take a lot of convincing for me, personally, to have to go after the owner ... he did everything in good faith," Rep. James Mills said.

With or without the help of a state law, city officials are searching for a way to make up for lost revenues.

"Somebody’s got to do something somewhere," Figueras said.

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