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Controversial sanitary district policy suspended

Controversial sanitary district policy suspended

An unpopular policy put forth by the Junaluska Sanitary District requiring landlords to co-sign for their new tenants’ water service has been suspended after tensions between property owners and elected officials reached a boiling point.

Landlords had much to complain about at the Dec. 15 sanitary district board meeting and made allegations of illegality, mismanagement and obfuscation regarding the policy and the way it was passed without public input. Sanitary district officials denied all three allegations and stressed that they were glad to receive input from the public on the policy.

The policy, which would allow the district to hold landlords responsible for the unpaid balances of their tenants and prevent water service from being restored until such balances were paid, was implemented to keep the water district from losing money. JSD General Manager Josh Nickol said the district had lost more than $16,000 over the past two years due to unpaid water bills above and beyond the security deposits it collects from customers. 

The board passed the measure Oct. 31, but landlords said they weren’t notified until late November, if at all. Landlords were further incensed that they hadn’t known about the proposal before it was passed and weren’t given an opportunity to address it. 

Nickol said that the board had been working on the proposal for six months in regularly scheduled board meetings, which are open to the public but sparsely attended. 

“Should we come to every single meeting, just to protect ourselves?” said Dr. George Freeman, whose wife owns two rental properties in the district. Freeman was among more 10 in attendance at the meeting in the cramped district office — all of whom opposed the proposal.

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Nickol said that the objective of the proposal wasn’t to go after landlords, but that lost revenue affects everyone in the district. Homeowners at the meeting wanted to know how tenants could rack up delinquent balances above the $200 security deposit when average monthly water bills are usually well under $100, and also stated that they didn’t have the debt collection measures available to the district. 

One property manager in particular, Michele Rogers, co-owner of Select Homes, even said she thought it was coercive to force homeowners to enter in to what is essentially a contract, against their will. Conversely, she also opined that even well qualified customers who didn’t necessarily need a co-signer would be turned away if landlords wouldn’t sign.  

Rogers manages more than 300 rental properties in Haywood County, 71 of which get water service from the Junaluska district. Worried that the policy would instead encourage tenants to skip out on paying the final months of their bill, she’s been one of the most visible and vigorous opponents to the policy, which she said would affect both the tenants and the owners of the properties she manages. 

“I understand that the meetings are open to the public, but what they should have done is invited landlords and property owners to give input before passing the policy,” Rogers said. “Had they done that, people would not have been so upset. I mean, especially when you pass something that affects people’s finances.”

In one heated exchange with Burt Smith — the sanitary district’s attorney — Rogers asked why the district didn’t simply charge a varying deposit based on individual applicants’ credit score, like the power company does. Smith said it was against the law and when Rogers asked which law, Smith shot back with, “I’m not here to be queried.”

Rogers said she had previously contacted N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office about the policy but a representative told her that the AG couldn’t get involved in the matter, and suggested she reach out to a local attorney. 

But that may no longer be necessary — at least for now. 

Near the end of the Dec. 15 meeting, the board suspended the co-signing portion of the policy. The district will still charge a $200 deposit — the highest in the county, said Rogers — for new service, and will now cut off service after 30 days of delinquency. 

“I’m grateful they gave us the opportunity to speak, but this would have been better beforehand,” Rogers said. “Some board members were open to hearing our concerns, but I feel like some, including their attorney, were very frustrated.”

Rogers said that when talking to Nickol about the suspension of the policy, he stressed that it was a “temporary” move, meaning property owners and sanitary district officials will have to find some way to protect the district from loss without burdening property owners in the process. 

The district intends to bring the policy up again for discussion at what could be a contentious meeting Jan. 19. 

“I made a big deal out of this not to make a big deal out of it, but to protect my clients, who are the homeowners,” Rogers said. 

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