WOONSOCKET – Councilman Roger Jalette says the city sometimes assesses sewer and trash fees to dwelling units deemed unfit for occupancy, but it’s unfair to the property owners and shouldn’t be allowed.
The longtime councilman introduced a proposal to rectify the situation earlier this week, but colleagues on the City Council voted to table the measure for further study.
Councilman Daniel Gendron, vice president of the panel, said one of his concerns is that the proposal could become administratively unwieldy and open the door to abuses.
“I know I have questions,” he said. “There should be some kind of mechanism in place to make sure we’re not providing services to units whose owners are skirting the fees.”
But Jalette says it is unfair for the city to charge the fees to homeowners who lose the ability to rent an apartment in a multifamily, for example, because they’ve had a fire or they’re doing renovations.
“It’s not very often that somebody takes a house and totally rehabilitates the property,” he says. “We shouldn’t be punishing that person. We should be thanking them.”
The city charges $96 a year per unit for homeowners to have trash picked up, and about $320 for sewer use fees, often called the toilet tax.
Jalette said he first raised the issue over a year ago when a constituent complained to him about having been billed for an apartment in his house that was uninhabitable because it had been damaged by fire. He informed City Hall on behalf of the individual, whom Jalette did not identify.
“I thought it was all cleared up,” said the councilman.
Then it happened again – to him. Jalette said he bought a two-family house on Third Avenue last year and started fixing it up. He ran out of money before he was able to bring the second floor up to code. But he continued receiving a bill for toilet taxes and trash fees even though he didn’t have an occupancy permit.
He says he complained to Finance Director Thomas Bruce and the bill was pro-rated to waive fees on the sidelined second-floor apartment. Jalette says he doesn’t think anyone in his shoes should have to complain to get a break they deserve; there should be a law on the books that specifically waives the fees for units that don’t qualify for occupancy permits.
“It’s not the intent to do this just for me,” he says. “It’s an issue of basic fairness that should apply to everyone in the city.”
As unfair as it is, Jalette said he couldn’t think of anyone else at the moment for whom the measure would supply the intended relief.
Gendron says his concern is that Jalette might be swatting a fly with a legislative sledgehammer and creating more problems in the process. Once a unit is retired from the occupancy rolls, it might be an impractical administrative chore for the city to keep track of its status. If the city has to rely on homeowners to notify them when their properties are suitable for renting, some might forget and receive services for free that everyone else pays for. Unscrupulous homeowners might deliberately misconstrue the status of their property.
Even if the City Council finds merit in Jalette’s idea, there’s no guarantee that the state-appointed Budget Commission will agree, and the panel has the last word in matters affecting revenues.
“It at least warrants some analysis,” said Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, a member of the panel.
But Fontaine said if a closer look suggests Jalette’s proposal will result in an appreciable decline in city revenues, it’s unlikely to win the commission’s blessing. The panel, which is forecasting a $15 million budget shortfall by the end of the fiscal year, will need every penny it can get.
“They’d be hard-pressed to cut any revenue source at this point,” the mayor said.