The D.C. City Counsel yesterday passed emergency legislation that would prohibit gas and electric companies from shutting off service to mass-metered apartment buildings in a move to force landlords to pay delinquent utility bills.
In another action, the council also passed emergency legislation, which is effective for 90 days, that would require the mayor to notify the council in writing for their approval of any proposed reprogramming -- that is, moving from one budget area to another. He already is required to do so in cases of amounts exceeding $25,000.
Mayor Marion Barry, who, in an unprecedented appearance before the council on an emergency matter, said the legislation would "tie my hand." He told reporters afterward that "I am going to veto this and I am not going to cooperate.
"The board of Education and the University system has full authority to reprogram up to $50,000 but the mayor of the city cannot do so under this bill," said Barry.
"Under this legislation I cannot shift a GS 9 or reprogram funds for paper clips or pencils without sending a written request to the council," he said.
The legislation that would prohibit gas and electric companies from shutting off service would affect 105 apartment buildings in the city occupied by hundreds of tenants, said Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-8) sponsor of the bill.
Rolark said the bill, as an emergency measure, would protect those in jeopardy now while the council continues discussions with utility companies, apartment owners and others about permanent legislation.
The bill yesterday, passed with only one dissenting vote, by Councilwoman Willie J. Hardy (D-7), drew criticism from several council members, including Hardy, and landlords as a measure that does not adequately address the problem of delinquent bills.
Hardy criticized the bill because, she said, it did not include heating oil service. She added that the council should consider whether the existing city housing code can force landlords to pay bills so that services may be restored.
Council member Jerry Moore (R-at large), who voted for the emergency measure, said that the council was "grasping at straws" and that the body would "sooner or later" have to come up with a better solution to the city's housing crisis for low-income people.
John O'Neill, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Buildings Association of Metropolitan Washington, said the bill ignores the reality of the problem of low-rental housing in the city.
O'Neill also was critical of a provision of the bill that would allow the D.C. Superior Court, within 72 hours, to place property in a court-appointed receivership in which collected rents would go toward paying outstanding utility bills. The legislation did not address past-due bills, but Rolark said utility companies could take legal action against landlords in such cases.
"If people [the landlords] can't pay their utility bills, there is a reason," said O'Neill, who expressed anger over the legislation. "After eight years of rent control, it's no surprise that people can't pay their bills. [The council's] action is going to take the man's rent from him so that he won't be able to pay other bills.
"They don't have enough courage to face the issue that they are going to have to approve substantial rent increases in this city if they want to stave off disaster in about 30 percent of the property in the city."
David Boyce, director of corporate affairs for the Potomac Electric Power Co., said, I believe this measure effectively protects the innocent tenants, but I don't know how effectively it addresses the entire problem of the past due bills."