Utility Billing for Local Government During COVID-19

By: Sara Shonrock

As social distancing becomes a normal way of life, local governments are struggling with the immediate shutdown of all “non-essential” services and the likely economic impact resulting from job losses of residents. 

As a city government, there are still essential services that are needed during this time including electric, gas, and sewer and water.  These services, especially water and sewer, are most often provided by the municipal government and in the face of an unsure landscape for citizens, many cities are shifting the way they do business to meet the needs of their residents.

Unpaid utility bills are usually charged a late fee, and in most cities, subject to a shutoff notice.  For many cities, this is the only way to continue to provide these services on a tight budget.  COVID-19 has changed the way that we view such services and the way that we can deliver them as well.  

On March 13, 2020 the Iowa Utilities Board issued an emergency order directing all electric and natural gas utilities in the state to cease disconnection of residential service due to nonpayment.  The IUB on March 19, 2020 urged all utilities to refrain from utility service shutoffs, especially water service, during the coronavirus outbreak and supports the IDHR to extend the LIHEAP application period to May 31. While electric and gas are often required to stay on during the winter months, the order extends the moratorium on shut-offs to May 1, 2020.  The emergency order gives information as to gas and electric specifically but does state that water should also not be shut off during this time.

Many city utility services are funded strictly by payments for use from residents.  The guidelines for shutoffs often come after one month of missed payment to try and prevent a large bill that will likely not be paid. Cities often charge a late fee a few days after the bill due date goes unpaid.  Often after a two-week period, cities will then choose to put a door hanger alerting the resident that they are going to be shut off.  

Cities that choose to keep water on during this time have a few options.  

  • The first is to continue to charge late fees.  In this way, they may still collect additional monies while trying to assist residents with staying connected in an unsure time.  
  • The city can choose to try and work with residents and landlords.  Landlords whose renters are not paying their utility bills may begin to receive the bills for the rental property.   
  • The city can choose to continue to use the door hanger method and decide whether or not to charge late fees.  

While many cities may choose to not disconnect utilities during this time, there will still be options for recourse after the fact with the continuation of late fees.  Cities will continue to have recourse to property liens for unpaid fees and bills when recovery does occur. 

Suspension of Bank Foreclosures during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency

By: Jon Wolseth

The economic and social uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the situation of homeowners already finding themselves in straitened financial circumstances.  For those households in the midst of foreclosure proceedings, the fear of losing one’s home during the public health crisis compounds an already difficult situation.  Recent steps have been taken at the state and federal levels to provide homeowners in the midst of foreclosure with some relief.  

Bank foreclosure proceedings are being suspended in Iowa, an action taken in a recent (March 22, 2020) State Public Health Emergency Declaration from Governor Reynolds.  Section 2 of the declaration reads: 

SUSPENSION OF FORECLOSURES

SECTION TWO.  Pursuant to Iowa Code §§ 29C.6(6) and 135.144(3), and in conjunction with the Iowa Department of Public Health, I temporarily suspend the regulatory provisions of Iowa Code chapters 646, 654, 655A, and 656 allowing for the commencement of foreclosure proceedings, or the prosecution of ongoing foreclosure proceedings, on residential, commercial, and agricultural real property located in the state of Iowa. Suspension of these provisions shall apply during the duration of this Proclamation or any future extension of this suspension.

A.   Nothing in this section shall be construed as relieving any individual of their obligation to make mortgage payments, or to comply with any other obligation that an individual may have under a mortgage.

B. The Iowa Division of Banking and the Iowa Division of Credit Unions are hereby directed to immediately engage with banks, credit unions, mortgage bankers, and mortgage services to identify any tools, means, or methods that could be used to relieve Iowans from the threat of foreclosure.

In particular, this action provides relief for homeowners who may have been at risk of foreclosure in the midst of the public health emergency.  Affected homeowners are encouraged to proactively reach out to their mortgage lenders to pause proceedings.  

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a 60-day moratorium on foreclosures and evictions for FHA-insured single family homeowners. The moratorium began March 18, 2020. Read the full text of the press release

U.S. Government-sponsored mortgage enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also released plans of assistance for their lendees whose ability to make mortgage payments is impacted by the COVID-19.

COVID-19 Business Resources

We just wanted to share this resource list posted by the Buchanan County Economic Development Commission. This is a great example of what a local community can do to streamline access to resources available to businesses. Check their page out for more information we have also reposted their links below for ease of access. Let us know in the comments if you have any additional resources to share.

Business and Industry Resources and Information Relevant to COVID-19

The COVID-19 (Corona Virus) has drastically impacted our personal lives as well as businesses and industries throughout Buchanan County, the state, the nation and the world.  We at Buchanan County Economic Development want to provide you relevant links to assist businesses and industries with the most relevant information available.  Below you will find links that we hope can answer your questions and help to guide you through this unprecedented time.

Links to relevant sites and articles:

Links to Iowa Department of Health and COVID-19 update sites

Information and Legislation From Gov. Reynolds Concerning COVID-19

City Budget Resources

By: Erin Mullenix

In uncertain economic times, city budgets are undoubtedly a challenge. These times of pandemic and economic decline can add inherent volatility and uncertainty to the local budget.  

Fortunately, the State of Iowa’s Department of Management has granted extensions to city budget filing deadlines for all cities.  City budgets are now due April 30, 2020, unless the city has received individual correspondence with a later date specified.  Each city should have been emailed by the Iowa Department of Management with additional details.  If no such email was received, contact the Iowa Department of Management. Click here to view the memo from the Iowa Department of Management. 

In addition to the change in budget deadline, cities should keep in mind the new budget requirements enacted last year during the 2018-2019 legislative session.  Those changes include the addition of a second public hearing process related to new public reporting requirements.  Visit the Iowa Department of Management, or Iowa League of Cities websites for more information.

Remember that Iowa State University Extension’s Office of Community and Economic Development has a number of helpful budget resources available to you.  Visit the Iowa Government Finance Initiative (IGFI) and Indicators Portal websites for a host of local government resources, including custom Annual Fiscal Conditions reports for each city and county. 

Options for Internet Access in Rental Housing

By: Abigail Gaffey

Many parents are suddenly finding themselves responsible for their children’s education at home. For most of us this is an inconvenience, but for low-resource populations it can be an impossibility. Rental property managers, particularly of apartment complexes housing families, can help by checking on the internet needs of their tenants.

Large apartment complexes, both market rate and government-assisted units, often have publicly-available wi-fi in a shared community room, but the need for social distancing may make using it an unsanitary prospect whether through congregating in one spot or touching a shared computer. A better temporary solution may be to share the internet password for the next couple of months. Another possibility would be to purchase a mobile hot spot for each floor of the building.

Some will argue that not everyone will use the wi-fi responsibly and certainly that is true, but in the interim the need for students to continue their educations, the surge in tele-health appointments that will keep people out of doctor’s offices and non-emergency hospital visits, the need for people to file for Unemployment benefits online, and shifting as many people as possible to paying bills online rather than in-person may outweigh the possibility that someone might watch a few too many YouTube videos.

If providing wi-fi is completely beyond the landlord’s budget, at a minimum landlords can let their tenants know about low-cost internet services. Several Iowa telecom companies are offering reduced-price internet start-up packages to new customers. In central Iowa, Mediacom offers the Connect2Compete package that offers high-speed internet packages for as low as $10 per month: https://mediacomcable.com/about/news/mediacom-brings-internet-access-to-low-income-students/ The same Connect2Compete program is also available to Iowans served by Cox Cable: https://newsroom.cox.com/cox_internet_changes_to_assist_students_-_remote_workers Iowans with Sparklight (formerly CableOne) are being directed to Spectrum Charter which is making 60 days of internet service free to households with student. However, it isn’t available in all zip codes in Iowa, so potential customers will need to check on available for their location: https://home.sparklight.com/news/read/category/news/article/variety-charter_offers_free_broadband_to_all_households_wi-rpenskemc

In the coming days, we may see even more companies and rural telecom providers coming up with solutions that help not just students, but also folks now working from home. An example of an innovative solution is Northeast Nebraska Telephone Company. NNTC has set up a free pandemic wi-fi. Customers can drive up to within 100 feet of one of 22 locations to connect. A mobile hotspot extender can also be used to pick up the signal farther away: https://nntc.net/nntc-response-to-covid-19-coronavirus/

One last idea property managers can explore with their tenants is working with the local school district if a tenant family is struggling with internet connectivity for their young students. These interactions may also help a property manager identify a family in crisis needing other social supports at this tenuous time.

Changes to the BLUZ Blog

We are adjusting our services here in CED to continue to provide education and support while maintaining social distancing for the health and safety of our staff, participants, volunteers, and communities.

We are going to use this blog to post information and resources for our Iowa communities including businesses, local governments, and other community groups.

The Housing Assistance Council has compiled a list of Resources Related to Coronavirus and Rural Housing:

http://www.ruralhome.org/whats-new/mn-whats-new/45-announcements/1801-statement-and-resources-on-coronavirus#housing

A few resources for Small Businesses:

The Small Business Administration is offering loans to small businesses and nonprofits who have been impacted by COVID-19.  Businesses and nonprofits can receive up to $2 million in a low-interest loan.  For more information visit https://www.sba.gov/disaster-assistance/coronavirus-covid-19

Upon request from the Governor, the Small Business Administration will under its own authority issue an Economic Injury Disaster Loan Declaration. The Restaurant Workers Relief Foundation has created as COVID19 relief fund for workers impacted by COVID19 information can be found here: https://www.restaurantworkerscf.org/news/2020/3/15/resources-for-restaurants-and-workers-coping-with-the-covid-19-emergency

The ONE fair wage has created a restaurant worker and tip worker fund as well and information on that can be found here: https://ofwemergencyfund.org/

Information and eligibility requirements for a Bartender Emergency Program can be found here:https://www.usbgfoundation.org/beap?fbclid=IwAR3p9y-eXg1bhTGGL-snMh4XS6S4ydHxbu-mSTjYNMtDGrTiXsEvXIhT7KY


The National Restaurant Association has also compiled a list of resources and that can be found here:https://restaurant.org/Covid19

ISU Extension to Continue to Provide Services of the Institute of Public Affairs

In April, the University of Iowa announced the closure of the Institute of Public Affairs. The Institute had been a resource organization for Iowa’s local governments since 1949. The mission of the Institute of Public Affairs was to provide information and services that assist in maintaining and strengthening the effectiveness of Iowa’s state and local governments.

Iowa State Extension is working with the Iowa League of Cities and former staff from the Institute of Public Affairs to ensure that these important services remain available to local governments. See our local government programming page or brochure for a list of some of the programs and services we provide.

Contact Eric Christianson (ejchr@iastate.edu; (515) 451-5662 for pricing and more information.

2018 Nuisance Abatement Conference

The Iowa League of Cities and ISU Extension to Communities will be hosting the inaugural Nuisance Abatement Conference, May 16 at the Gateway Conference Center in Ames. The day-long conference will feature guidance on nuisance abatement, a critical issue for all communities in their efforts to build and maintain vibrant neighborhoods. Attendees will learn effective ways to rebuild homes and buildings, return dormant properties to an active use and restore community pride. Registration details can be found here.

The Nuisance Abatement Conference is currently sold out. If you would like to be added to the wait list, please contact Shannon Busby at shannonbusby@iowaleague.org or (515) 244-7282. Any openings will go to those on the wait list on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Agenda

Opening General Session (10-11 am)

The conference will begin with guidance on how to set a strong foundation for nuisance abatement. We will cover the basics of nuisance property codes, effective enforcement methods and dealing with dangerous and dilapidated buildings.

 

Concurrent Workshops – Morning Session (11 am – noon)

  • Proactive Nuisance Abatement Strategies – Hear how your community address nuisances before they become a problem, including efforts to build neighborhood pride, identify leaders and motivate residents to maintain their property.
  • Creating a Nuisance Abatement Plan – Many cities conduct nuisance abatement activity in a purely reactive way, but what if your community developed a detailed plan? Planning can help prioritize properties and issues to address, leading to a more effective and efficient nuisance abatement process.
  • Tax Sales and Acquisitions – This workshop will focus on processes to acquire derelict and abandoned properties through tax sales and award of title by a court. While these processes can be challenging, they are a powerful tool that communities can use to return problem properties to a more active use.

Lunch (Noon – 1 pm)

 Concurrent Workshops – Afternoon Session (1-2 pm)

  • The “Other” Nuisances – This session will offer tips for dealing with the “other” nuisances that occur beyond the usual overgrown grass or weeds. Learn best practices for enforcing junk vehicle codes, business nuisances, noise violations, animal control provisions and more.
  • Financing Nuisance Abatement – Finding ways to fund nuisance abatement activities is challenging as cities try to stretch their budget as far as possible. Hear methods for collecting abatement costs from property owners, how to strategically budget for abatement efforts and state programs that offer funding assistance.
  • Tax Sales and Acquisitions – A repeat from the morning session to ensure adequate time is given to this important and challenging topic.

 

Closing General Session (2-3 pm)

Attendees will hear from a panel of city officials that have used innovative methods in successfully addressing nuisance properties. This interactive closing session will provide case studies and lessons that can be applied in any community with an opportunity to discuss local challenges.

The Annual Fiscal Conditions Report (FYE 2017) for all cities in Iowa is now available

The Iowa Government Finance Initiative (IGFI) Annual Fiscal Conditions report, for the Fiscal Year Ending 2017 for all 945 cities in Iowa have just been released. County reports are forthcoming later this year. The reports provide an alternate perspective on local government finances and trends. The information in these reports will help local elected and appointed officials during their budgetary and planning processes.The 2017 reports have been thoroughly revised and expanded. Ending fund balance is now presented separately for the governmental funds and proprietary funds.

These reports are a valuable resource to communities in Iowa to keep tabs on economic, demographic, and fiscal changes taking place and to plan for the future. This is the sixth year of publication for these reports. These reports can be accessed on the Iowa Government Finance Initiative website. Just click on ‘City Reports’.

IGFI is the public finance outreach wing of ISU Extension and Outreach. It provides resources and works with Iowa governments on a host of issues including finance and community economic development.

Questions on the report can be sent to Biswa Das at bdas@iastate.edu.

 

Only the Board of Adjustment can approve Special/Conditional Use Permits

by Eric Christianson

Holland v. Decorah

Iowa Supreme Court, April 2, 2003

This is an older case, a classic of Iowa planning and zoning case law. However, the issue of the role of the zoning board of adjustment is one that still comes up quite frequently.

In the late 1990s Wal-Mart began planning a new location in Decorah, Iowa. The location selected was located in the floodplain of the Upper Iowa River. To build there, Wal-Mart had to place fill in the floodplain. First, Wal-Mart obtained the required permits from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Then, Wal-Mart applied to the Decorah City Council for a permit to place fill on the floodplain. The city’s zoning code contained among its permitted uses in the F-1 floodplain district:

Dumping of approved materials for landfill purposes, subject to prior approval of the city council and appropriate state agencies. [emphasis added]

Following this section of city code, Walmart’s representatives appeared before the city council on August 15, 2000 and requested approval to fill the property. After a heated and confrontational public comment period, the city council approved the request by a vote of four to three. The council’s vote was only to approve the fill. It did not change the zoning of the area or approve of a site plan.

Previously, Upper Iowa Marine, which owns adjacent land, had attempted to dump fill in the floodplain. They also applied for and obtained the proper permits from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Instead of presenting their request to the city council. They applied for a special exception to the zoning ordinance from the zoning board of adjustment. The board of adjustment found the application inconsistent with the comprehensive plan and denied the request.

A group of citizens in Decorah filed suit, arguing that Wal-Mart’s request should have been submitted to the board of adjustment as Upper Iowa Marine had done rather than the city council.

The case hinges on two main issues (1) the authority of the board of adjustment and the city council and (2) definition of a special use.

Iowa Code 414.7 states that a city council should appoint a board of adjustment so that it, “may in appropriate cases and subject to appropriate conditions and safeguards make special exceptions to the terms of the ordinances…”

Further on in 414.12 Iowa Code defines the powers of the board of adjustment including, “to hear and decide special exceptions to the terms of the ordinance…”

Courts in Iowa have been very clear that no other entity has this power. In The City of Des Moines v. Lohner in 1969 the court said that the power to make special exceptions are “placed exclusively in the board [of adjustment] and effectively restricted by statute.” Likewise in Depue v. City of Clinton in 1968 the court asked itself, “[I]s the jurisdiction of the board of adjustment, conferred by sections 414.7 and 414.12 and exclusive jurisdiction? We think the answer[ is] affirmative.”

It is clear then in Iowa case law that approving special uses is the exclusive jurisdiction of the board of adjustment. At issue is whether conditioning a permitted use on “prior approval of the city council” was essentially the same as a permitted use. Wal-Mart argued that the council’s grant of permission was not a special exemption because it was listed as a permitted use and the council had only a “limited, technical review.” Walmart argued that the city council was not examining whether the proposed change was consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan. Instead they were simply ensuring that the appropriate permit had been obtained from the Department of Natural Resources and that the fill material was free from waste materials.

In its reasoning, the court took special note of the contested nature of the public discussion period before the vote at the council meeting. During this meeting evidence and opinions were presented on both sides and one council member even attempted unsuccessfully to convene a task force to study the issue further.

The issuance of special-use permits is quasi-judicial or administrative. […]  The problems with allowing a political, legislative body such as a city council to rule on applications of this nature (in addition to lacking statutory authority) are apparent in this case.  The city council had no hearing procedures, notice requirements, or the type of guidelines that would govern the board of adjustment.

Even on the cold minutes of the meeting, it is apparent the council would have known by the time the discussion was concluded, if they did not already know, they had a tiger by the tail.  The residents were deeply divided on the issue, raising concerns about the environmental impact, the fairness of the proceedings (especially in view of the fact the board of adjustment had denied a similar permit), and the prospect of 120,000 cubic yards of fill being placed in the floodplain in the event the DNR appeal was successful or the construction plans were thwarted for some other reason.

In the end, the court concluded that whether or not dumping fill in the floodplain was a special or conditional use in Decorah’s code, the city council’s actions violated state code.

If it was a special use, is clear that the city council had no authority to allow it. Even if it is not, however, it would violate chapter 414 of Iowa Code which requires that zoning be done “in accordance with the comprehensive plan.” In fact, Decorah’s comprehensive plan expressly addresses protecting its floodplains as natural resources “for use as permanent open space.” In making a decision in direct opposition to the comprehensive plan, the application of the ordinance would still be illegal.

 

Historical Note:

Walmart had already completed construction on the $20 million building that their superstore would occupy at the time of this decision. The building had been sitting vacant since the previous fall awaiting the outcome of this lawsuit. Eventually, the parties settled. Wal-Mart agreed to make a donation to the Decorah library and to fund a study of the floodplain. Wal-Mart also agreed to lease their old building the the city for $1 a year with all proceeds from subleases going to fund the construction of a river trail. The Wal-Mart, much like confusion over roles in planning and zoning, is still with us today.

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