Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Utility Liens

If you're interested in landlord/tenant or utility service law, there's an ongoing issue in the City of Jamestown that has my attention. It's long been the practice of the city-owned Board of Public Utilities to place a lien on property for unpaid utility service received at that address. It's long been a complaint of local landlords that tenants run up bills and then the landlord is left to foot the bill.

Except, of course, the BPU does not foreclose on these liens and the total actually comes due only upon transfer of the property. Now this is changing: the City Council voted yesterday to allow these utility arrears to be placed on the tax bill. Local law has long allowed the BPU to have unpaid sewer charges placed on the city tax bill for the subject property, and now this will be expanded to cover the water and garbage charges.

I'm most often an advocate for low-income individuals, and I've had my share of differences with the BPU and with local landlords, including some of those named in the article, by way of disclosure. What irritates me most about this isn't the actual legal issue itself. I think the subject properties gain their economic value from having utility service, and the landlord does bear some of the burden. I can understand the liens, if not the billing, but these are tough times for local governments in closing budget gaps. What irks me is the standard "woe is us" line parroted by the P-J without any question. Sure, someone lost money in business...that's not new to anyone in business in Chautauqua County. But despite the loss on that one budget line, what was the gain on others? Or is the P-J allowing a claim that someone has lost money for 45 years and still remains in business to go unquestioned?

What are the details, at least in thumbnail sketches, of the small claims judgments mentioned? Are they all for utility bills, or does it include rent and damages? Did the tenant default at small claims court, so that the landlord was granted his request unquestioned, or was it the result of a hearing? Ok, so that last one is a little too broad for the article in question. The P-J is always ready to cover an apartment where a disgruntled tenant trashed the place, but a large portion of properties in this city with substandard conditions go uninvestigated and uncovered. Then after the tenant leaves, the landlord can claim the broken fixtures, holes in the walls, peeling paint, etc., were due to the tenant and get a judgment, regardless of the fact that the tenant made numerous complaints and nothing was ever repaired. In the words of one local landlord to me: "I move trash in, I throw trash out." And another recently told me: "I don't put money into this place. I only take it out." Why isn't this side of the story ever covered?

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