City puts landlord issue on hold

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By David Giuliani

The Las Vegas City Council is delaying a decision on a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for landlords to avoid liability for their tenants’ utility bills.

At last week’s council meeting, a majority of members agreed to hold off on the proposed ordinance. That was after Councilman Morris Madrid raised some questions.

The council decided to address the issue at a meeting in May. Meanwhile, the city plans to seek an attorney general’s opinion and conduct a financial analysis on the proposed ordinance.

For the last few years, the city has required that a landlord submit a form signed by the tenant, the landlord and the city, so the landlord could escape liability for tenant bills. This process required getting information from the tenant, which landlords considered an unfairly burdensome process.

Under the proposed ordinance, all the landlord has to do is submit a form requesting waiver of landlord liability, with no tenant signatures required.

Landlords have long maintained that they shouldn’t have to pay the bills for services others enjoy. They consider the new proposed form far easier and less bureaucratic.

Madrid has been dealing with the landlord-tenant issue since he was the city manager five years ago. He said at one point, he recommended that the city and the landlords have a court decide on the issue, but that didn’t happen.

Madrid argued that transferring the ultimate liability for utility bills to the tenant may be a violation of the state constitution’s anti-donation clause, which bars public money from going toward private purposes.

“Let’s resolve the legal question once and for all,” he said.

He said a landlord should be treated like any other business. For instance, he said a motel is liable for the water used by a lodger.

Madrid also said he worried about the fiscal impact on the city utilities, saying that he suspected most delinquent customers were tenants, not property owners.

He said there is middle ground with the landlord-tenant issue, suggesting credit checks could help solve the problem.

Councilman Andrew Feldman, who is chairman of the city’s utilities committee, which recommended approval of the ordinance, agreed to hold off, saying he liked the idea of credit checks. He said it was important to go after the people who owe the city money.

The council voted 3-1 to delay consideration of the ordinance. Councilwoman Diane Moore dissented.

Although the council requested a financial analysis of the proposed ordinance, Utilities Director Ken Garcia said at a meeting last month that the city couldn’t properly analyze the fiscal impact until the ordinance is in effect. He said he doubted it would put the city in a bad position financially.

Anselmo Arellano, a member of the Las Vegas Landlords Association, said that if the city doesn’t pass the proposed ordinance, landlords would likely take the matter to court.

“This proposed ordinance is quoting state law,” he said. “All we’re doing as landlords is asserting our rights as protected by the laws of New Mexico. We’ve been repeating this to the city for the past four years.”

Arellano pointed to a New Mexico law that states a landlord will not be held liable for a tenant’s utility bills if the landlord submits a “Landlord Waiver of Liability” form.

Lawrence Sandoval, another association member, said that if the city had been more aggressive with collections, the landlord-tenant issue wouldn’t even be a problem.

“We’re in the landlord business. The city is in the utility business,” he said.