Tenants Gain New Right

David Delcore        TIMES ARGUS

MONTPELIER — Landlords who don’t pay their water bills might not receive all of their rent thanks to new legislation that lets tenants take over delinquent accounts and deduct the payments they make from their rent. First floated more than a year ago, the legislation was proposed in response to a federal class-action lawsuit that ended badly for Barre.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P-Washington, was lead sponsor of the bill and anticipates that Gov. Peter Shumlin will sign it into law.

Tenants who take over delinquent accounts could be held responsible for only one billing cycle worth of past-due charges. They could deduct that money from their rent, as well as future charges.

Pollina said the legislative change would serve the needs of tenants, who often aren’t billed for water directly, as well as the communities supplying the resource.

“This helps ensure tenants can keep the water running, if they are willing to take over the bill, and it means the municipality gets paid,” Pollina said.

That wasn’t possible three years ago when Vermont Legal Aid filed a class-action suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of two Barre tenants.

One of those tenants, Brenda Brown, had her water shut off by the city in 2010 after her landlords breached a repayment agreement involving their delinquent account for the Summer Street rental property where she lived. The other, Earl Brooks, narrowly avoided disconnection later that year when his landlord agreed to a payment plan with the city.

The lawsuit ended with a $70,000 settlement, of which Brown received $10,000 and Brooks $500, with the balance going to Vermont Legal Aid.

Among other things, Brown claimed she should have been allowed to appeal the city-issued shutoff notice and take over the bill to avoid disconnection.

Judge Christina Reiss agreed in part, noting that the city’s policy, which has since been modified in response, must allow for an appeal. However, Reiss suggested the Legislature needed to take up the question of whether tenants can put water bills in their own names if they don’t own the property.

Part of the confusion in Barre stemmed from the fact that the city’s relationship is exclusively with the property owner.

“This is a win-win,” Pollina said. “Tenants can get their water, and the city or town gets paid.”

Pollina stressed both are important.

“It is not just a money issue,” he said. “Access to water is a public health necessity.”