Threatened water bill boycott pushes change

It was a long night for Ocean View Town Council members and the determined few who stayed at their meeting until past 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 18. A first reading of an ordinance to amend the state code of the town by adding a new section on financial good standing was introduced, but with a boycott of water bills threatened by some property owners, the council decided they would revisit some of the wording before a second reading was held.

“For people who want permits, utilities, zoning changes, they have to be in good standing with the town,” said Town Solicitor Dennis Schrader. “The purpose is to delay allowing people who have not supported their local government in obtaining these. Most often, it affects people wanting to get a building permit.”

Kim Hook, an Ocean View property owner and local Realtor who recently sent a letter to 197 unimproved lot owners in Ocean View regarding the “service availability charge” for town water for lot owners, urging the boycott, asked pointedly on Tuesday if accepting the proposed ordinance would mean only that water could be cut off, or if other services, such as a business license, could be suspended. She asked that only service-specific consequences be set.

Hook has sent a letter to state Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th) and Gov.-Elect Jack Markell regarding the issue and has obtained signatures from many property owners who say they are willing to boycott the charges. She has received signatures from others who, although they have already paid the quarterly charges, agree with her and question the town’s right to bill for the fee.

“I cannot find one town or community anywhere that bills non-metered, unimproved property – maybe because it would not be legal for them to do so,” she wrote in her letter to the property owners. “Ocean View is the only town that has a quarterly water service availability charge for non-metered, unimproved property. This is a fabricated fee to fill the void created by over-spending and mismanagement,” she asserted.

Resident Harvey Booth offered similar sentiments on Tuesday and questioned the council’s motives behind the first reading of an ordinance to amend the code by adding the section on good financial standing.

“I question the timing of this,” he said. “It feels like people that don’t pay the water bill are specifically being targeted by this. We are being denied a service, and it feels like we are being strong-armed.”

He also questioned why the water bill is not a one-time fee with a finite amount, rather than a quarterly fee that is indefinite.

“It’s an ongoing payment for service where we don’t have service,” he said.

Town Manager Conway Gregory explained that, with the USDA loan that the town obtained for the water service, a debt service for unimproved lots was calculated.

“You pay the same fee for unimproved connection with sewer for the county,” he said. “It is not unusual. Every community that takes a loan, that is calculated into it; and, to do it the most equitably, those unimproved lots are factored in.

“This was created by council,” Gregory emphasized. “An ordinance was approved. It was placed on the Web site. A letter was sent out. Everyone has been made aware. I don’t know what else we can say.”

In answering Booth’s questions on the timing of the proposed ordinance, Gregory said it was merely coincidental.

“This [first reading] has nothing to do with water. There’s no conspiracy,” he said. “It’s simply coincidental.

“As for what we would do for non-payment,” Gregory continued, “we haven’t made a final decision. We’d have to talk with the county and the Department of Public Health, and we would take appropriate action at that time within the laws of the State of Delaware.”

Mayor Gordon Wood said the council would look at the wording of the proposed ordinance before a second reading, to make sure that water issues would be segregated out.

“No promises,” he said, “but we will look into what is required by the grantor.”

As for what Hook, and others, want to gain with the boycott of the billing, “My hope would be the town realizes that they made a mistake in billing unimproved lot owners water bills and end the billing,” she said. “The ordinance says, ‘the service availability charge shall be billed to all lots which can be serviced by the town water system.’ I cannot be serviced by the system until I build. Lot owners simply can not have the service. We have no access to it.”

The ordinance will move ahead to a second reading at a future council meeting, at which time it could be adopted, with or without changes.

Tuesday’s meeting included a second reading and vote on two other proposed ordinances – both of which were adopted. A second reading of an ordinance amending Chapter 54, Article 1, 54.4 and 54.5 of the town code, relating to removal of names from books of registered voters and resignation of voters, was adopted on a unanimous vote. The council also approved a second reading on an ordinance amending Article X, 222-60 and 222-61, renaming the town Zoning Commission to “Planning and Zoning” and expanding its duties to be reflective of Delaware state law, including handling of the town’s comprehensive planning process.