By DAVID GREEN
Morenci city council members began a discussion Monday about a problem that’s troubled city employees for years: Tracking down the responsible parties from rental units and land contract deals.
City hall staff is trying to get on top of problems they experience frequently with people moving in and out of houses, said mayor Keith Pennington.
“They’re tracking down not only who owns the property but also who is responsible for water bills,” he said.
Several homes in town are advertised for rent or for sale. In many cases, the potential renters agree to sign a land contract to purchase the home.
Building inspector Kevin Arquette and city administrator/clerk Renée Schroeder suggested to city attorney Fred Lucas that land contract sales could be included in the rental inspection program. Pennington explained the recommendation from Lucas was that land contracts could be registered with the county register of deeds, any property that was not registered would immediately fall under the rental inspection program. If a question of ownership arose, staff could call the county office. If registered, city hall would not be involved. If not registered, the property would fall under the rental inspection program.
Councilor Brenda Spiess didn’t see how that would help with water and property tax payments. In order to obtain water service, she suggested, perhaps renters and land contract buyers could be required to sign an agreement stating they are responsible for water payments.
At times, the mayor said, multiple parties are identified as the land owners and the water bill is split up. He knows that apartment complexes generally accept only one person of record to be responsible for water bill payments and he suggests the city do the same.
If property is not recorded, added city treasurer Crystal White, it cannot be claimed for the Homestead Property Tax Credit in the buyer’s name.
City staff needs to find out who’s accountable for the bills with people just moving in and out, White said.
Assistant city clerk Diane Varga said the problem is a little out of hand and does affect the water program.
“I do want to make sure that property taxes and water bills are not only handled fairly, but also efficiently,” Pennington said, “so our staff is not spending hours and hours chasing all of this down.”
Arquette asked council members if they thought it would help to include land contract sales in the rental inspection program.
Council member Jeff Bell said although it may be helpful with problem cases, it would also burden other buyers who are paying their bills.
Pennington thinks a lot could be accomplished simply by adding a line to water service agreements stating that the signer is responsible for payments until they give written notice that they are no longer living in the residence.
“That should really clarify who’s responsible for the bills,” he said, “and it gives them some impetus to come in and say, ‘I’ve moved out.’”
Police chief Larry Weeks told council there was one situation where the buyer of a land contract got into trouble in an unrelated issue, but in discussion with the person, Weeks learned he was receiving state rental assistance that was being applied for the purchase of the home on a land contract.
He suspects that some people may be circumventing rules regarding state assistance.
“Your understanding,” Pennington said, “is that state assistance that is awarded for rent is not eligible to be awarded in a land contract or purchase?”
“Yes,” Weeks responded. “That’s what I was advised when that incident came up previously.”
He said that other interaction in similar situations imply there are potentially more occurrences taking place.
“That’s why I think it’s important that council addresses the issue and takes a look at it.”
Oversight of the issue is provided by the Department of Human Services. Pennington said he’s willing to speak with representatives of the department to make sure funds are dispersed correctly in the city.
Council member Robert Jennings suggested tabling discussion on the issue while gathering further information while councilor Greg Braun cautioned that council needs to continue working on the matter. Braun suggested speaking with other community leaders to see if they have ideas that Morenci could adopt. Mayor Pennington suggested we could gather information and have further discussion of the issue within 30 days.