City Ordinances, Water Utilities and Property Management

In Jass Props., LLC v. City of N. Lauderdale, 101 So.3d 400 (Fla. App., 2012), the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal decided an issue involving Florida Statute (FS) 180.135(1)(a) that seemingly contradicted a city ordinance requiring that property owners, not the tenants, open an account for city water and sewer services, even though the services directly benefit the tenants. Jass Properties, LLC brought suit against the City and sought an order from the Court to rule that FS 180.135 prevented the city from requiring only property owners to have a water account with the city, and not tenants. The Court ruled against Jass Properties and in favor of the City.

The Court ruled that FS 180.135 does not directly contradict the City ordinance to the extent that the ordinance is preempted by the statute. Using a bit of pragmatism, the Court stated that a city would experience a heavy burden of having to deal directly with tenants (and back payments) for water services and that as such, the city had a rationale basis to require water accounts to be established by only property owners. It stated,

Section 180.135 does not expressly prohibit the City from declining to contract with tenants for water utility services and restricting service agreements to property owners. Nothing in the statute mandates that tenants have the ability to contract directly with a municipality for services. We agree with the observation of the circuit court that “[b]y requiring landlords to actively manage their private business interests, [the] City avoids the burden of dealing with perhaps hundreds or thousands of individual tenants who might be behind on their bills.” We see nothing in the statute that prevents the City from enacting an ordinance designed to constrain costs that might otherwise be borne by the taxpayers.

Property managers that operate in cities like North Lauderdale and have a similar city ordinance should be ready to deal with city water account issues such as Jass Props. This city ordinance imposes additional burdens on the property managers and landlords in cases where tenants do not pay for water utilities (as required in the lease) or use unreasonable amounts water (contrary to the lease).

The property manager should have lease provisions to account for such situations and anticipated burdens so that the owner and property manager may effectively require the tenant to cure the violation, evict tenant’s lease violation in this regard and charge tenants for the added burdens of having to manage the property with this kind of city ordinance.