Water billing and collection in the City of Cambridge has been overwhelmed with controversy over the past four years since taking over as service provider from Cambridge & North Dumfries Hydro in October 2010. There have been numerous and significant issues reported from a variety of residents, from homeowners to tenants to landlords, who have received huge water bills for no apparent reason ... some as high as $2,700.
In light of the controversy, the City contracted a consultant to review its policy and procedure for water services and billing. The consultant’s report was released by the City on February 12, 2015 and includes 19 recommendations for improvement. The report found that a significant contributor to the issues comes from the approximately 6,800 accounts that have old meters without remote metering capabilities. These 6,800 accounts make up 17% of all accounts.
The BMA report also draws attention to shortcomings in the City’s policy for estimated billings and, in some cases, accounts have received estimated billings for periods as long as three years before an actual bill is reconciled. The danger of this overreliance on estimated readings is that it can result in very high ‘swing bills’ for the consumer to catch-up on the payments for the actual amount of water consumed.
Most municipalities surveyed have either replaced, or are considering, replacing all meters with new automatic meter reading technology that eliminates the need for estimated billing entirely. The City is currently in the process of replacing its remaining older meters to help correct the problem. In the meantime, while the majority of the municipalities surveyed have enacted adjustment policies for high consumption due to unintentional leaks, Cambridge has not. The only flexibility shown by the City is through payment terms and not charging interest on overdue accounts.
Impact on Landlords
The recommendations in the consultant’s report also include making property owners responsible for payment of all water-related charges, regardless of who the ultimate consumer is, with arrears from water accounts being added onto the property tax account for the property. This could potentially have a significant impact on local landlords, who would essentially be on the hook for their tenants’ delinquent water bills. Landlords could be forced to seek repayment from the tenant in Small Claims Court, at their own expense, since they are already restricted to collecting only last month’s rent from a tenant as a deposit.
As it stands, residential tenant accounts established after Jan. 1, 2011 are ultimately the responsibility of the property owner. However, the City is responsible for collecting outstanding accounts established prior to Jan. 1, 2011. The consultant recommendations passed by City Council on February 17, 2015, means that property owners will be responsible for all tenant water accounts, including those established prior to Jan. 1, 2011. In many cases, landlords already have a hard time collecting their rent from delinquent tenants. Adding an unpaid water bill to the landlord’s burden is sure to cause more headaches for landlords and could, potentially, give them a good reason to invest in property in another municipality.
Other recommendations passed by council include the elimination of deposits, and refunding existing deposits, with interest. The City will also consider adopting Hamilton’s approach to delinquent tenant accounts, in which all accounts would be in the landlord’s name, but as a customer service, bills would be directed to consumers upon their request. Adopting this policy would likely result in landlords negotiating the inclusion of utilities in an all-inclusive Tenancy Agreement.
City Council also passed other consultant recommendations related to policies, practices and procedures, which include considering the cost/benefit of installing automatic meter reading technology and establishing policies for back-billing and leak adjustment. While policy and procedure change is a step in the right direction, this issue is far from over and it is likely to remain that property owners will have no recourse against the City even if their water billing issues are not their fault and completely out of their control.
Sources: Cambridge Times, The Record, CTV Kitchener