Hampstead delays vote on water bill late fees

Charge would rise to $20 or 10 percent, whichever is larger

January 12, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Hampstead Town Council delayed action last night on a plan to increase late fees for residents who fail to pay their quarterly water bills on time. No objections were raised at a public hearing last night, but the council wanted a legal review of the proposed ordinance.

Each quarter, about 22 percent of the water bills are paid after the due date, said Town Manager Kenneth Decker. The current 10 percent penalty amounts to $2.80 on the median water bill of $28 for almost 1,800 residential and business accounts.

The proposed ordinance would increase the penalty to at least $20 or 10 percent of the bill, whichever is larger, for anyone more than 30 days late.

A $20 late fee on a $28 bill might seem objectionable, Decker said, but the proposed minimum would cover the cost of having his small staff spend extra time going through unpaid bills, mailing two or three notices and visiting a site to assess the situation when a turn-off notice is issued. Those who pay on time are subsidizing those who don't, he added.

Most overdue water bills are residential accounts, Decker said, and most eventually are paid. But reviewing for errors or needy cases means wading through about 400 late payments each quarter.

The proposed ordinance also would decrease the time for discontinuing service to 10 days from 15 days after receiving a written notice and would increase the fee for turning service back on to $50 from $25, except where a property was vacant.

Dan Lee of the 2200 block of Golf View Lane asked the council to consider the problem of renters whose landlords might not pay and suggested the city require an assurance bond for water service that could be refunded.

The council agenda called for a vote on the ordinance last night. But Town Attorney Michelle Ostrander said she needed a few more days to rule out legal problems with the amount of the late fee, after someone alerted the town to a July 1999 decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

The state's highest court upheld the return of $7.59 million in late fees and interest payments to tens of thousands of customers of a cable television franchise after a Circuit Court judge ruled in 1997 that United Cable Television of Baltimore had charged customers more than it cost the company to recoup late fees.

Both Decker and Ostrander said they did not think that case would apply to Hampstead's proposal.

The ordinance would take effect 20 days after approval, most likely in time for the next water bills in March.

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