Like most renters, Brenda Brown never paid the water bill at her two-bedroom apartment in Barre. It was included in her monthly rent of $650.
But when her landlord failed to pay that bill, the city plastered Brown’s building with pink shutoff notices, and the city clerk told her she would have to pay $722 to keep the water flowing.
Brown said she couldn’t pay — her only income is a $726 monthly Supplemental Security Income check — so city workers came and turned off the taps, which stayed that way for two weeks.
When they arrived on February 3, Brown was filling five-gallon buckets and plastic milk jugs from the tap, stockpiling all the water she could. Later, she drove to Price Chopper and spent her grocery money and a month’s worth of food stamps on 18 gallons of bottled water so she could flush the toilet, bathe and wash dishes.
“Mentally, it tore me apart,” says Brown, who lives on Summer Street with her son and daughter-in-law. “The day they shut the water off, I just sat there and cried for, like, an hour.”
Brown was snared by Barre’s tough policy on water delinquents. Under Mayor Tom Lauzon, the city has pursued a policy supported by Vermont law that disconnects households with seriously overdue bills — regardless of whether the dwelling is occupied by renters or owners, or at all.
The rules governing shutoffs by private utilities in Vermont are significantly more renter friendly than those governing public utilities like the Barre Water Department. Vermont Public Service Board regulations say that no private electric, water or gas company can disconnect an occupied apartment for a landlord’s failure to pay an overdue amount. Renters also get the option of assuming future payments before a private utility is shut off.
Public water utilities have no such restraints.
Lauzon says the 4-year-old policy has dramatically improved Barre’s collection rate, which in turn keeps everyone else’s bills lower. The mayor doesn’t know how many households have actually been disconnected, but he says notices go out as often as needed, and homeowners get ample opportunity to work out payment with city hall. He says 13 new shutoff warnings will be sent out this week.
When she called city hall to fight the disconnection, Brown learned that tenants aren’t entitled to appeal water shutoffs — nor can they take over payments to keep the taps flowing — because they are not the ratepayers. Their landlords are.
While it’s rare for shutoffs to last longer than a day or two, Brown lost her water for two weeks in the dead of winter when she was recovering from foot surgery — a situation she calls inhumane and unfair. With the help of Vermont Legal Aid, she got her taps turned back on after a doctor’s note persuaded a judge that water was medically necessary to keep Brown’s foot clean.
Vermont Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis calls the practice “unfair, wrong and illegal … For low-income tenants whose health and safety are put at risk, the hardship is magnified because they are forced to incur other expenses — like buying water, spending money on doing laundry and having to buy premade meals.”
Curtis and colleague Karen Richards are suing the city of Barre on Brown’s behalf in what they hope will end up a federal class-action lawsuit. They argue that Vermont’s shutoff law violates two constitutional guarantees: due process, since it’s deprivation of property — the water — without a pre- or posttermination hearing; and equal protection, since tenants are treated disparately based on whether or not their landlord paid the water bill.
Brown’s apartment is in a four-unit building owned by Jeffrey and Marybeth Tevis of Randolph. The other three apartments are vacant, and the building is in foreclosure. Seven Days was unable to reach the Tevises at their listed phone number.
Just how many Vermont towns take Barre’s approach is unclear. Vermont Legal Aid has dealt with a few such cases over the years in Barre and Rutland, but none of those resulted in a tenant going without water for two weeks.
Karen Horn, public policy director for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, says she has heard of shutoffs happening but believes towns use the power “sparingly.”
“I don’t think towns use it very frequently at all,” Horn says. “Generally what happens is, once a disconnection notice is sent, you get payment.”
The first notice posted on Brown’s door in January indicated payment of $571 was required to avoid disconnection. When she called city hall to inquire, Brown was told the amount was actually $722 — $571 for the monthly water bill, plus $150 toward a “repayment agreement” her landlord had struck with the city to pay off an outstanding balance of $2000.
Brown had two problems with that. First, she wasn’t responsible for the entire building’s water use, just her own apartment’s. Second, she wasn’t about to pay her landlord’s past-due bills.
Brown sought the help of Curtis, who faxed a strongly worded letter to Barre city hall — to no avail. On February 3, the taps went dry. Two weeks later, Brown’s medical exception bought her a 30-day reprieve, but she had to find a permanent solution.
With a judge’s help, she and the city brokered a deal that allows her to pay a prorated portion of the water bill going forward — $70 a month — without assuming responsibility for the past-due amount.
Still, Brown felt like she was being “punished.”
Lauzon says he is sympathetic to Brown’s plight and calls her a “victim” — not of Barre’s policy but of state law.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Lauzon says. “But the law simply doesn’t allow the municipality to deal directly with the tenant” on overdue water bills. The mayor says state law ties the city’s hands by not letting renters take over payments on delinquent landlord accounts.
Lauzon adds, however, “[Brown’s] case is much less compelling to me than cases where tenants have done what they are supposed to do.” Brown had not paid her rent for some time — a circumstance that might explain, Lauzon continues, though not excuse, the landlord’s failure to pay the water bills. Brown says that her landlord has not tried to evict her, and there is no court record of his trying to collect back rent.
Lauzon says he established Barre’s shutoff policy four years ago to set a consistent standard for enforcing collections. Ratepayers were being treated differently, with some getting three months to pay, some longer, depending on which clerk they dealt with.
Today, Barre bills water customers quarterly and gives them 12 months to pay overdue amounts — provided they stay current on the quarterly payments going forward — and 24 months for “extenuating circumstances” such as a lost job or death in the family.
When that fails, water will be shut off, but only as a last resort, the mayor says.
Lauzon credits the policy with improving collections, cutting delinquencies from 10 percent in 2006 to 5 percent today — and that benefits everyone, he says.
Although he admits that living without water poses a habitability problem, Lauzon says failure to follow through on disconnection warnings would send the wrong message to landlords. “Every landlord in the city could simply decide not to pay … knowing that as long as it’s an occupied unit, we’re not shutting the water off.”
What about renters? Lauzon says they should take their delinquent landlords to court and file an injunction to compel them to pay the water bill.
Brown has taken her fight to court — only her battle is with Barre city hall, not her landlord.
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