What started as an overdue water bill for Dave Mayse of Belton almost ended in the loss of a place to stay last month, because of a longstanding city policy.
By ROXIE HAMMILL
Special to The Star
Now city officials are rethinking whether residents whose water service has been shut off should be forced to leave their homes under city condemnation rules.
Last month Mayse, who had recently moved from Springdale, Ark., and was starting an advertising business, suffered some financial bumps that caused him to be late on his water bill. Mayse found he couldn’t make the payment before the Sept. 26 shut-off date.
But he had a plan. He expected to have the payment — $153.91 plus a late fee — ready on the following Monday. In the meantime, he brought in bottled water so his family of four could drink, wash and flush toilets.
Things seemed to go smoothly. But when Monday rolled around, the city came knocking at the door. Instead of asking for the payment, the city slapped a condemnation notice on his house, ordering him and his family to pay up in the next four hours or move out.
Mayse had run smack-dab into a city policy that calls for condemnation of a building to follow shortly after the water is shut off if the bill is not paid. The city has said the policy is needed for public safety and to keep residents from falling hopelessly behind in their water bills.
Mayse called it “criminal behavior,” and unconstitutional.
But now that the policy has drawn media attention from Mayse’s public objections, the city is taking a second look, said Brian Foster, Belton’s assistant city manager. The city is considering whether to add more notices before condemnation or do away with the practice altogether, he said. But no more homes will be condemned while officials decide.
A change would have a big impact on the number of condemnations issued. Foster said that out of 186 notices posted this year, 167 were related to water bills.
Mayse said the condemnation posting amounted to “extortion” by the city and more care should have been taken to assess whether the living conditions in the house were, in fact, unsafe. The city should not condemn a property without an inspection and notice, he said.
“Before you’re removed from your house, findings have to be made, warnings have to be given,” he said.
Instead, the city had a blanket policy that allowed the condemnations without inspections and warnings, he said.
“What they’re doing is strong-arming people into paying their bills,” Mayse said.
“It didn’t have anything to do with my family’s safety. It was strictly about the money.”
Water bills are due 20 days after residents receive them, said Sheila Ernzen, finance director. If the bill is not paid by the due date, it’s another 20 days before the water is shut off. Shutoffs occur on Thursdays.
For bills that remained unpaid, the city posted condemnations the following Monday, but the city has at least temporarily discontinued that.
The city allows residents to come in and work out payment arrangements if they cannot pay the bill on time, she said. The condemnations had been the city’s effort to keep residents from falling too far behind.
“If you let it go on three or four months, you’re never going to be able to get out of that hole,” she said.
The condemnation notice surprised Mayse and his family, he said. They had prepared for a weekend without water by bringing in 100-plus gallons of water for the family’s needs.
“We kind of lived old style, a little,” Mayse said. “It was kind of good for the family to go through — family strengthening. It wasn’t catastrophic.”
Mayse’s 10-year-old son, Jacob, was home when the city workers came with the notice and was scared by it, Mayse said. Jacob immediately started packing to move.
Now that the bill is paid and the water is back on, Mayse hopes the city will change the policy, because many more people in town have been affected by it. Many of those other people have been too panicked to protest what the city was doing, he said.
“It wasn’t an easy thing for me as a man to say I couldn’t pay my water bill,” he said. “But this wasn’t about me. It was about them.”