City may cut water to apartments over $12K debt

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CORDOVA — City leaders are preparing to file suit and shut off the water to a local apartment complex unless the property owner pays approximately $12,300 in overdue utility bills.

City attorney Ben Goldman said he learned from a longtime Cordova Water and Gas Board employee on Tuesday that Cordova Manor Apartments has likely been delinquent more often than not since a master meter replaced individual meters in 2003.

The same apartment complex was the site of a raw sewage spill in August 2016. Council members voted to sue the property owner at that time after learning that a pond of human waste had formed in the woods behind the complex when a privately-owned septic pump malfunctioned.

The apartment has since changed ownership. Susan Doan and First Coastal Trust, based in California, reached a settlement with the city over cleanup of the sewage spill, as well as past due bills.

"There was a very frank discussion with Ms. Doan about the structure of utilities for Cordova Manor Apartments, which is the same as it is for all apartments in the city. This is the only location where we have a problem," Goldman said.

Goldman added that Doan signed a written contract with the city, which specifically addressed utility bills.

He said she paid the bills for several months before falling behind as the past owner did. 

Goldman prepared a resolution for Tuesday's meetings of the council and water board that would have authorized him to file suit immediately and for utilities to be disconnected on fair notice to the tenants. There are approximately 12 tenants living in the apartments currently, according to Goldman.

However, water board members voted prior to the council meeting to table the issue for one meeting, giving Goldman time to notify Doan via a letter that board members will vote to file suit and disconnect the water in September unless an agreement between the two parties is reached.

Both Goldman and Mayor Drew Gilbert openly expressed skepticism that an agreement can be negotiated and would be honored based on past behavior. 

"I can tell you that to this point we have been through so many rounds of asking her to do things a property owner ought to do without being asked that I don't feel like we should have to go through a lot of begging," Goldman said. "The power is in your control at some point to turn off the utilities and that will get their attention. That is the benefit of being a utility owner. I'm not suggesting that you do it without compassion, but I do think a strong message needs to be sent all the way back to California that you are out of patience."

Gilbert, who expressed displeasure with the decision to wait an additional month, urged Goldman to send a clear message to Doan with the letter.

"In simple terms, these people decided years ago with previous owners that they weren't going to pay their full bill because they didn't agree with the bill. Think about the audacity of that. You get your water bill, you don't like what it says, so you give it a number that you're comfortable with. That's literally what they are doing right now. They are hiding behind their tenants because they know we have compassion for their tenants, but we're doing them a disservice because they're having to live in less than standard living quarters," Gilbert said.

In addition to not paying the full water bill on time, the new ownership has also neglected to keep the grounds maintained and has not moved a pumping station that should be relocated in order to properly move human waste away from the facility, Gilbert added.

In other action, the council:

• voted to purchase five body cameras for officers in the Cordova Police Department. Chief Billy Dill said he is considering cameras that cost $699 each and are among the best on the market. 

The funds will come from several sources. Donations of $1,215 were collected from area businesses for the purchase of body cameras before Dill joined the department. He proposed using the donations for the purchase of two cameras, spending money from the corrections fund to purchase two more and having the final camera purchased from the general fund.

Gilbert reminded council members that the department had body cameras under Chief Nick Smith but they have stopped working over time.

"I would be in favor of going up a tier this time around. This is such an important piece of equipment in the current climate, and we need to have the right one," Gilbert said.

Gilbert added that on multiple occasions in the past, officers could not produce footage from their body cameras when an incident arose. 

Gilbert stressed that officers would be expected to abide by the policy developed by Dill in conjunction with Goldman and excuses will not be acceptable.  

• agreed to absorb a cost increase related to employee health insurance. The premium for a single employee is increasing from $402 to $474.

Gilbert said he tried without success to find more competitive rates. 

Council members voted to continue covering 100 percent of the premiums for city employees.

"I think that's one of the greatest benefits that we've been able to work in for our employees. It's going to be a difference of around $12,000 a year. Frankly, I don't think there is a more important expense than taking care of our employees, so I'll find it somewhere in there when I start working on the next budget," Gilbert said.

• voted to purchase a table at the Walker Area Community Foundation's annual luncheon on Wednesday, Aug. 28. Gilbert described the foundation as "the most generous friend of Cordova post-tornado." One recent example is a grant to replace the motor in a vehicle donated by the Walker County Sheriff's Office and Walker County Commission that will be used to deliver meals to area senior citizens.

• learned that repairs are being made to the sewer system's lift stations following damage caused by a lightning strike.

• learned that Trunk or Treat, an annual event organized by Cordova Fire and Rescue, will be held Saturday, Oct. 26, at 5 p.m. in downtown Cordova.