Council clarifies water cutoff rules

In a scheduled vote at Monday night’s Henderson City Council meeting, members passed an ordinance that more clearly defines when the city may terminate a customer’s water service.

City Attorney John Zollicoffer began the debate by reminding the council of the discussion that has revolved around the possibility of terminating service if a customer pays only a portion of the water bill rather than the entire bill. The discussion is a result of Oxford Road resident Lewis Edwards’ announcement to the council this year that he was not legally required to pay the sanitation fee.

Edwards has maintained that because the council passed an ordinance regarding the sanitation fee without a public hearing, and because the ordinance directly affects the city budget, he was not legally required to pay the fee.

According to Edwards, all proposed city ordinances affecting the budget must have a public hearing before they are passed by the council; therefore, the ordinance was improperly enacted.

Zollicoffer told the council that he discovered an item in the city charter that allows the termination of water service for any nonpayment.

Henderson Mayor Clem Seifert asked Zollicoffer, “Does this ordinance take the place of the existing ordinance?”

“No, it supplements it,” Zollicoffer said.

The ordinance, Zollicoffer explained, in essence prioritizes how payments are recorded based on how the city’s computers are programmed. The computers are programmed to apply payments to outstanding prior balances first. After 50 days of delinquency, the city may terminate water service.

“We ought not be dictated by computers,” Seifert said.

Zollicoffer reported to the council that the cost associated with reprogramming the city’s computers to make them more flexible in how they record payments would be $8,000 to $9,000.

Seifert inquired of the city attorney what ordinance compelled citizens to pay the sanitation fee. Zollicoffer said such an ordinance is on the books and has always been city policy.

Council member Mike Rainey asked Zollicoffer how the ordinance would affect those who had made payment arrangements. The attorney replied that residents may still make partial payments, but those payments would be applied to the oldest part of the bill. The word “may” is key, as it gives the city latitude to make decisions as to whether to terminate service in individual cases. Late fees, it was noted, would continue to accrue through the period of late payments.

City Manager Eric Williams observed that the ordinance takes away the option of customers picking and choosing services.

Rainey reminded the council, “This is part of our income to pay the bills so we don’t have to raise taxes.”

He reminded the council that $160,000 in delinquent water bills were charged off in the past year.

Council member Harriette Butler said she did not understand the “double-talk.” She advised her colleagues that they needed to stick with the ordinance and that they “should be clear and precise.”

Council member Ranger Wilkerson said he would like to see the proposed ordinance referred to a committee, then taken up at the next meeting.

“When it comes back from committee, not everyone knows what happens,” Butler said.

Seifert put forward the argument that if there already was an ordinance requiring Edwards to pay all fees, another ordinance was not needed.

Zollicoffer contended that the ordinance was necessary to clarify city policy and to empower enforcement of the previous ordinances as well as the city charter.

Edwards commented from the audience that he would do as the law requires.

Williams advised the council that he believed it would be appropriate to waive the late fee in the case of Edwards, since it was accrued as the council deliberated on the matter.

When the motion to accept the ordinance was put to a vote, it passed unanimously.

During the portion of the City Council meeting at which public comments are heard, Edwards announced to the council that he would pay the sanitation fee.