By Chris Frost
Oxnard-- The Oxnard City Council took a step to protect people renting homes in the city, Jan 7 and adopted its (Senate Bill) SB998 water services policy.
The resolution provides a written policy on the discontinuation of water service, in compliance with SB998.
Under State Law, SB998 requires an urban and community water system, defined as a public water system that supplies water to more than 200 service connections, to have a written policy on discontinuation of water service to certain types of residences for nonpayment available in prescribed languages. The bill would require the policy to include certain components, to be available on the system's Internet website, and be provided to customers in writing upon request.
SB998 provides for enforcement of these provisions, including making a violation of these provisions punishable by a civil penalty issued by the board in an amount not to exceed $1,000 for each day in which the violation occurs.
The finance and governance committee approved the item unanimously on Dec 10, 2019.
Assistant City Treasurer Eden Alomeri presented the item to the council and said members of the city attorney and city manager's offices, along with the public works, finance, and city treasurer offices, designed the resolution.
The City of Oxnard has over 40,000 service connections. SB998 amended the California Health and Safety Code and introduced new restrictions to discontinue water services.
SB998 applies to all residential water services scheduled for disconnection.
The bill also defines a residential customer, she said, which are people living in a single-family home, or apartment buildings, and mobile home parks.
"It also applies to people who will be terminated due to nonpayment," she said. "Because of SB998, we have to have a written policy in effect by Feb 1, 2020.
The city code needs to be amended, she said, but those are not due by Feb 1, so the city staff will return with those changes at a later date.
"The policy must have a plan for deferred or reduced payments or an alternative payment schedule," she said. "We can have both."
The policy needs a formal mechanism so customers can appeal or contest the bill. There must also be a telephone number that customers can call and discuss other options rather than discontinuing service.
"Our policy must be posted on the city's website," she said.
According to SB998, residential customers must be delinquent by 60 days before the city can terminate their water service. The city will not be able to terminate service if the primary care provider certifies that discontinuing water will be life-threatening or pose a serious threat to the health and safety of the resident.
"The customer must also demonstrate a financial inability to pay," Alomeri said. "If they are deemed financially unable to pay, and members of the household are receiving assistance from programs like Cal Works, Cal Fresh, SSI (Supplemental Security Income) or WIC (Women Infants and Children). Or the customer can demonstrate their annual income is 200 percent below the poverty level."
A one-person household earning less than $24,890 is considered 200 percent below the poverty level. A two-person household that earns less than $33,800 annually is regarded as 200 percent below the poverty line.
If the customer is willing to enter into an amortization agreement or alternative payment schedule, the customer can stop the termination of service.
"All of these three requirements must be met before we can stop the service," she said.
If the customer does not comply with the payment plan, the city can still turn the water off.
"If they are in a payment plan, if they fail to pay their current charges within 60 days, then we'll also be able to discontinue their services," Alomeri said.
The bill also sets a cap on the amount of fees the city can charge. To restore service, the cost is limited to $50 during normal hours.
"After hours, it is limited to $150," she said. "The current fee we charge, for disconnection, we charge $40, and for reconnection, we only charge $40. For reconnection after operational hours, we charge $145."
The city also has notice requirements for its customers, and the city must provide seven days warning before turning off service.
If someone is a property manager or landlord, they need 10 days advance notice.
"Instead of having two different timeframes, the city will provide at least 10 days of notice to all," she said. "The city also has to make a good faith effort to reach residents. We can use either written or telephone communication to notify them of a pending disconnection. The discontinuation notice should be left at the residence, should we be unable to reach out to them by written or telephone communication."
There are cases where multiple properties are individually metered, Alomeri said, and mobile home and individual home renters must receive a written notice of discontinuation of service due to nonpayment by the landlord.
"A qualifying resident of a multiple housing property should be given the opportunity to sign up as a customer if they are willing to take responsibility for the entire property," she said. "We should hold them accountable for the unpaid amount left by their landlord."
Under SB998, the city must report the number of affected renters on the city's website, and the number of the annual discontinuation of services.
"We also have to report that number to the State Water Resources Control Board," she said.
After Feb 1, water bills will become due right away. Past due notices will be mailed on day 28. Door hangers will be delivered to the home on day 42, which gives them eight extra days.
The penalty assessment for overdue bills will stay at 10 percent, and the door hanger fee will remain at $13.
After the presentation, Councilman Bryan MacDonald said that if someone offers to take over the water bill, it doesn't rollover to another renter at the property and skirt the law.
"I hope we are doing some due diligence to make sure we are playing some shell game where it goes to one person for three months, then it goes to another person for three months," he said.
As a safeguard, Alameri said the city collects the resident's social security or driver's license number.
"If there is a default, we can turn them into collections," she said.
Mayor Pro Tem Carmen Ramirez and legal aid attorney said getting the state involved is a good step. She has seen people lose their water because the landlord didn't pay the bill.
She asked what a tenant can do if the landlord stops paying the water bill.
"If the landlord is on the record as the account holder and did not pay on time and it gets terminated, we allow the renter to sign up and become the account holder," Alameri said.
Councilman Bert Perello asked about water quality and if there are problems with trash service, and Alameri said water quality complaints get referred to the public works department. Trash services get referred to the environmental resources department.
The water policy will meet any language need.
"Will it include the city's hours," Perello asked. "Some people may take a day off on Friday to address this and take a day off from work to address this, and the city is closed every other Friday."
Councilman Oscar Madrigal said the state politicians addressed the issue incorrectly.
"It's still not enough to help out the poor," he said. "When I saw the 200 percent below the poverty rate, that's roughly a little under $13 an hour, as a full-time employee," he said. "I know how many families have to nickel and dime themselves to get by. Something small, like a sickness in the family, throws them back three to six months."
Mayor Tim Flynn said the law helps people in extraordinary circumstances, and it remains to be seen if the law should go further.
"Due to the leadership of mayor pro tem on this particular issue, not just water, there is a fund that attempts to subsidize some of those rates," Flynn said. "We all know that no matter what the subsidy is, there are going to be people who fall on hard times. I hope the city treasurer's office is able to work with these residents."