Don’t punish all renters

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board March 21, 2014 08:40 am

We don’t like that Baker City had to hire a collection agency to try to recover about $25,000 in unpaid water/sewer bills during the most recent fiscal year.

But we like even less the prospect of forcing many residents — most of whom pay their utility bills on time — to pay higher rents because a relatively handful of renters are irresponsible.

We’re concerned, though, that the latter scenario would result if the City Council goes along with the proposal City Manager Mike Kee unveiled earlier this month.

Councilors are slated to discuss a more detailed version of Kee’s plan during their meeting Tuesday.

The basic concept is that the city, as Oregon law allows, would transfer unpaid water bills from a tenant to the landlord.

The city’s only recourse now, when a tenant fails to pay, is to send the debt to a collection agency.

“We are writing off tens of thousands of dollars every year,” Kee said. “It is not good business.”

He’s right.

City officials also contend that shifting the bill from tenant to landlord would persuade landlords to fix water leaks that contribute to higher bills and, potentially, to bills going unpaid.

Perhaps. But the city offered no evidence that leaks are primarily responsible for this problem.

Moreover, Oregon rental laws, which require landlords to provide a certain level of property maintenance, are the better vehicle for addressing leaks.

The most glaring problem with the city’s idea, though, is that it probably would end up punishing responsible renters.

If landlords know that they could be saddled with a former tenant’s unpaid water/sewer bills then they would likely do what most business owners do when their costs go up — increase rents to ensure they can cover any shortfalls.

Besides which, it’s possible, if not probable, that a tenant who fails to pay a water/sewer bill might also be less than reliable in paying the rent, too.

We’re not suggesting the city write off unpaid bills as inevitable — although, in reality, no city will ever collect every cent it bills out for services.

The city should continue to be aggressive in its collection efforts.

But the current level of losses doesn’t justify a policy change that would harm people who already pay their bills, to city and landlord alike, on time.