Columbus discusses policy on utility deposits

Published 10:00 pm Monday, December 7, 2015

Columbus Town Council had a lengthy discussion during its November meeting whether it could create an exception when someone dies if a family member living in the house could be exempt from paying a utility deposit.

Currently, whenever a name changes on an account, except for a spouse, a new deposit of $150 is required. The deposit is $200 for persons renting a home.

Columbus Mayor Eric McIntyre said during the town’s Nov. 19 meeting many years ago the town did not require deposits on water and sewer accounts so those people were grandfathered when the town began requiring deposits. The deposit is either returned to the person or credited to balances once the service is disconnected from that person’s name.

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McIntyre said the town had a recent occurrence where a father passed away and the daughter who was living in the same house wanted to put the account in her name and there was no deposit ever put down on the father’s account. McIntrye asked council if they want to consider not making the family member, in this case a daughter, pay a deposit if the bills have been paid consistently over the last 40 years for example. McIntyre at first suggested in these situations, the town require a $10 fee to remove one name and add another to have a paper trail for administration purposes.

Councilwoman Margaret Metcalf and councilman Richard Hall both agreed at first, with Hall saying if a relative takes over a good account they should have to pay as little as possible because a lot of times the children end up paying a lot of their deceased parents’ bills.

Council members discussed only allowing the no deposit clause if the relative had been living with the deceased family member prior to their passing.

“If they were to pass away and a child moved back into the home, yes, you charge him the deposit,” McIntyre suggested. “Because that’s what you do with the regular citizen of the town.”

Town attorney Bailey Nager shed new light on council’s discussion. Nager said technically, someone’s deposit is an asset of their estate after someone passes away and should be returned to the estate. If there is new ownership of the home, Nager said, whoever the new owner is should come in and pay a new deposit.

If an account includes a husband and wife and one of them passes away, a new deposit isn’t necessary, Nager said, only a name change.

“If they don’t have a deposit, then it’s time they have a deposit,” Nager said. “Every other citizen in town has had to have a deposit.”

Town manager Tim Barth asked the town clerk how many accounts the town has had this occur. Clerk Devon Gosnell said about five accounts.

Metcalf said the reason the town requires deposits on utility accounts is in case someone leaves without paying their bill.

McIntyre said it’s still their money; it’s not a fee.

Hall asked if a deposit from 30 years ago could be applied to the children’s or spouse’s deposit.

Nager answered only if in the original contract with the town the homeowner specified that in the event of death, the deposit will be credited to the spouse or children’s deposit. Otherwise, Nager said, the deposit would go to the deceased’s estate.

McIntyre said he thinks council is thinking more with their hearts than with their heads.

“Everyon (else) has to put down a deposit,” said McIntyre. “Is it fair not to require everyone to do the same thing? How can we make an exception when we have other people (paying deposits)?”

Metcalf asked how many people the town has who do not have a $150 deposit. Gosnell answered the town has some deposits that are $75 and others varying on what year the deposit was made and what the town’s policy was at the time, including some at $50 and others at $35 and $20. Gosnell said some accounts go back to 1988 and it doesn’t appear the town required a deposits on accounts then.

Hall said he wants to be fair across the board but he’s talked to a few people who have had this problem and to him it’s just never been fair for children of folks who have been diligently paying their bills on time for 50-60 years.

“I can see what Bailey is saying,” Hall said, “but everybody who has paid their bill has been a server of this town and they should be rewarded. I’m sure there is a solution.”

Gosnell asked how the town would require proof of relation to the deceased account owner.

Nager said he thinks what council is trying to do sounds very complicated.

“If you have a change of ownership the new owners pay the deposit and go on,” Nager suggested.

Council decided to table the issue last month and may speak to the N.C. Institute of Government regarding possible solutions.

Columbus Town Council has called a special meeting for tonight, Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 6 p.m. to hold a public hearing to allow micro-breweries and distilleries as a permitted use in the highway commercial district and to swear in newly elected council members and mayor McIntyre. The meeting will be held at Columbus Town Hall. The town’s regular council meeting will still be held on Thursday, Dec. 17 at 6 p.m. for regular business.