The city of Belton, criticized for an overly aggressive policy, says they are now re-tooling a policy to evict people for late water bills.
Belton resident David Mayse got a condemnation notice on his door simply because he was late on his water bill and the water had been shut off.
KCTV5 questioned the city's actions, and the city administration said the policy that allowed that to happen has been suspended while the city discusses what could be better.
Mayse said it is exactly what he had hoped for.
"It feels actually very good and exciting to know that we've got some energy going and a ball rolling," Mayse said.
Assistant City Manager Brad Foster said the city's policy evolved over time, and he hadn't ever questioned it nor had anyone else questioned him about the motivation behind it.
"So it was just a matter of taking it and stepping back and saying, 'OK, how did we get here? What's behind it? What are the factors involved,'" said Foster about the steps underway now. "(We're) trying to determine what's best, what's a good policy, what's fair, what's just."
The previous policy, the one that led to Mayse's predicament, was such that anyone who let 45 days pass without paying the water bill would get service disconnected and then, in a matter of days, the house condemned.
Disconnects happened on Thursdays. Condemnation notices went up the following Monday. Mayse speculated that the real concern was not sanitation but bill collection.
"We want to make sure people live with the minimum requirements necessary to have a habitable home," said Foster of the motivation behind the policy. "It's just making that assumption that things could go bad, things could get in a pretty sorry state because you can't flush, because you can't wash, because you can't take a bath, things like that. So that's making that assumption. Is that a good assumption? I don't know. But that's the assumption we made in the past."
When asked, Foster indicated the city has issued 186 condemnation notices so far this year. Of those, he said, 167 of those, almost 90 percent, were for no water.
"I do believe it was aggressive," Foster said of the policy in retrospect.
KCTV5 asked other area cities about their policies on the matter. None had a policy quite as regimented as Belton's.
Some did post houses due to water shutoff, but generally the time frame was not as compressed as it was in Belton.
In Raymore, city code calls for shutoff any time a bill is unpaid more than 10 days after the due date. As for posting a condemnation notice, Assistant City Manager Jim Feuerborn said, "the city of Raymore does not have listed anywhere in its code a provision for condemnation or declaring a residence uninhabitable after a set period of time has elapsed following water shutoff."
Mark Schaufler, the director of Water Utilities for Lee's Summit indicated, "disconnecting water service in Lee's Summit for lack of payment in and of itself does not trigger any other type of code actions. Accounts shut off for non-payment in Lee's Summit are simply left off until the outstanding balance has been satisfied."
In Peculiar, City Administrator Brad Ratliff said, "there is a minimum standard IBC code that requires a house to have water when it is inhabited. However, we do not trigger that code by the first shutoff of water as a result of non-payment."
He said if water would need to be shut off for an "extended period of time" for that to happen.
A utilities official in Independence said the Belton policy was "pretty typical."
It is hard to compare the two, however, because Independence bills for water, sewer and electricity.
There, electricity is cut off first when a bill remains unpaid. Water shutoff comes next. Then, if the bill is still unpaid for several days after both shutoffs, a health inspector is dispatched. If no one is home to allow for an inspection, a notice is posted that allows people on the premises only during daytime hours.
Foster suspects any revised policy will allow for more time to pay and advance notice of repercussions beyond shutoff.
"Having hot water and water coming through the pipes I think is essential to have a habitable home," he said. "I think that's the premise behind our policy. Does that mean you could do it another way and still have a clean environment? Yes. Yet we have seen examples where people have lived in filth because they didn't have that running water available to clean, to flush the toilets, things like that. It's balancing the personal rights versus what's good for the community."
Foster said one other issue the staff will look into is the notice itself.
The notice that has been used until now if the same form that would be posted if police or children's services workers were inside a home for some other reason and actually witnessed deplorable living conditions.
Foster said that language was too strong for a case where there has been no visual inspection.
"We were using a generic notice that we use for any type of building situation where a maybe a structure is unfit for human habitation and that had some pretty harsh language in it," Foster said.
The notice refers to a specific section of the International Property Maintenance Code that makes no mention of the need for running water.
After getting in touch with a codes official, Foster provided further citations that do, in the International Plumbing Code. That means this examination is not a matter of whether city officials can continue what it's been doing, but about whether they should.
Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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