LEWISTON — Landlords won't be held responsible if tenants fail to pay their electricity bills, city councilors said Tuesday.
A crowd of 30-plus Lewiston landlords urged councilors to discard a policy enacted after 9-year-old Taylor McQueeney was killed last August when her River Street apartment building burned. Fire officials blamed the blaze on candles used to light a room in the building after the tenants stopped paying the electric bill and the electricity was turned off.
Code Enforcement Director Gil Arsenault said his staff began placarding
buildings where the power is turned off, declaring them uninhabitable.
Both tenants and landlords are notified and warned that they could face a civil fine of $105 each if the power was not restored within 24 hours.
That's a knee-jerk reaction to a tragic turn of events, councilors and landlords said Tuesday. Tenants alone should be held responsible.
"Last time I looked, this was not Russia," Councilor Denis Theriault said. "It's not my responsibility when someone doesn't pay their light bill. What's next? Will I have to pay for their cable bill, too?"
Landlords said they were afraid tenants would be quick to take advantage of the situation.
"I don't think there's any doubt about this," said Lisa Toussaint, who owns several Lewiston apartments. "As soon as tenants find out about this, they will take advantage."
Acting City Administrator Phil Nadeau said the policy was based on existing city ordinances and rules and an attempt to fix potential life safety issues.
The August fire destroyed the building at 52 River St. before spreading to the neighboring 48 River St. building and melting the vinyl siding off two other buildings. The roofs of the buildings at 48 and 52 River St. collapsed, and as many as 50 people were evacuated from five apartment buildings.
According to fire inspectors, tenants ran an extension cord from the
second story to power a television and video games on the third floor and had used
candles for light.
Nadeau said his staff has monitored eight more situations since August where electricity was turned off at a downtown apartment.
"Each time, we applied this policy and each time, either the electricity was turned back on or the tenant moved out of the building," Nadeau said. Tenants paid to have the power turned back on in two instances, landlords paid in three of the instances and a landlord and tenant split the costs in another.
"At no time was the landlord required to pay for the power," Nadeau said. "The goal isn't to get them to pay. The goal is to get the tenants out."
Councilors decided to remove landlords from the policy, letting city staff placard buildings where electricity has been turned off and issue summonses to the tenants.