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Ombudsman rules on water woes

Landlords stuck with delinquent bills

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Manitoba's ombudsman says the City of Winnipeg should consider providing a monthly billing option for water consumers.

Acting ombudsman Mel Holley also recommends the city consider collecting a water deposit from individuals with a poor credit history to minimize the impact on landlords for unpaid tenant bills.

A city spokeswoman said Tuesday the recommendations are "reasonable" and Winnipeg will review them.

The ombudsman received a complaint from a group of inner-city landlords who claim the city's practice of requiring landlords to pay the delinquent water bills of their tenants is unfair. They said tenants should be responsible for paying for the water they use and the city should have to collect the money owed.

In a report released Tuesday, Holley said the city is within its legal rights to add a tenant's unpaid water bill to a landlord's property taxes. He also noted the city has taken steps to "reduce any elements of unfairness" landlords may face in this regard.

"As such our office is unable to conclude that the City of Winnipeg's actions/decisions are unreasonable," the ombudsman concluded.

However, he did suggest there was more the city could do to make the system fairer.

Landlords recommended monthly bills may be easier for tenants to manage than quarterly bills. They noted many of the house renters in the inner city receive income assistance and lack sufficient income to pay a quarterly bill.

The city said it is aware some customers would find a monthly bill easier to manage and it is investigating ways to provide this option. It also said according to the results of its most recent survey on billing, "the majority of customers prefer quarterly water bills."

The ombudsman noted the cities of Brandon and Portage la Prairie offer customers a monthly payment plan whereby pre-authorized withdrawals of equal amounts are made from the customer's bank account based on average consumption. Winnipeg also offers pre-authorized withdrawals, but they're made quarterly.

"Although we understand that implementing a budget plan may discourage some customers from taking regular meter readings," the ombudsman said, "regular readings could be a mandatory step in qualifying for a budget plan."

The ombudsman said Toronto, Victoria, Kelowna and other cities also treat water as a service that is provided to a property and, therefore, make the owner of the property ultimately responsible for payment.

The city had argued it would be unfair to ratepayers as a whole to be responsible for unpaid tenant bills. Landlords are informed immediately when an unpaid water bill is added to their property taxes.

The city makes several attempts to contact the tenant and landlord before disconnecting service. When water service is disconnected, a reconnection fee of $100 is charged, but upon payment of the fee, the amount is deducted from the total bill.

The city told the ombudsman's office the "majority" of customers make payment after receiving notice from the city or a reminder from the landlord that payment is due.

The ombudsman noted Manitoba Hydro requires a deposit or credit guarantee from individuals who are deemed a credit risk. He said the city may also wish to review the merits of introducing a credit guarantee and security deposit from customers.

The ombudsman's office reported on 11 issues Tuesday.

The ombudsman reviewed two separate cases in which personal health information was wrongly accessed by medical staff -- at Misericordia Health Centre and Health Sciences Centre. At the HSC, an employee was caught snooping in an individual's health records and at Misericordia notification was not properly given that personal health information would be shared with its charitable foundation for fundraising purposes. Both were breaches of the province's Personal Health Information Act.


-- with files from Bruce Owen

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2014 A5

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