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Owners responsible for delinquent sewer fees

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In a ruling that will affect property owners across the state, the Indiana Supreme Court today held property owners are ultimately responsible for the delinquent sewer bills of their tenants.

In Pinnacle Properties Development Group LLC v. City of Jeffersonville, Indiana, No. 10S01-0805-CV-302, the high court ruled a municipality may transfer a tenant's delinquent balance for sewer services to the property owner's account without notice to the owner because the owner is the one who will be held responsible for payment of sewer fees.

Pinnacle Properties Development Group, which owns rental properties in Jeffersonville, brought a suit against the city challenging its transfer of delinquent balances to the property owner. Pinnacle sought a declaratory judgment that Jeffersonville lacked legal authority to transfer delinquent balances. The trial court found the city complied with Indiana statute and local ordinances, and Indiana Code Section 36-9-23 allowed the city to bill Pinnacle.

The high court agreed with the city's argument that statutes and ordinances clearly show property owners are ultimately responsible for payment of the sewer service and that the city bills the tenants for the service, instead of the property owners, as a convenience to the owners.

The only relevant statutory provision in this case is I.C. Section 36-9-23-12.5, which provides for bill forwarding, and the Indiana Court of Appeals found that required a municipality to forward the final bill, but not the account balance, from one property to another, wrote Justice Theodore Boehm. Indiana Code 36-9-23 doesn't require municipalities to collect fees from tenants but from the property owner at the time the fees are incurred.

In some parts of the state, the legislature has prohibited or restricted transfer of delinquent fees or requires notification of the property owner of a tenant's delinquency, but Jeffersonville isn't included in those statutes and is governed by the general statute authorizing municipalities to provide sewer services, wrote the justice.

Pinnacle elects to have Jeffersonville bill tenants directly instead of the company. The Supreme Court acknowledged Jeffersonville's practice may inconvenience Pinnacle because by the time the company learns a tenant is delinquent, it could be too late to track them down and collect from them under the lease, wrote Justice Boehm.

But, Pinnacle could opt-out of the city billing program and bill tenants directly, examine the city's collection records each month to determine if tenants are current, include an average sewer charge in the rent amount, or collect additional money from its tenants to cover any delinquent fees, wrote the justice.

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