City says it will turn off water if mobile home park owner doesn't pay bill

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 2, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Residents in about 165 mobile homes could lose water service and face possible eviction because their landlord hasn’t paid his water bill or property taxes for months.
The city plans to turn off the water June 30 to two neighborhoods — Matika Villa on Airport Road and Circle Drive on U.S. 29 — unless Tim Smith makes a payment toward his bill, which Smith said is about $50,000.
Smith, who owns Rubber One Recycling on Peach Orchard Road, also owes $189,000 in unpaid property taxes on the mobile home parks and several other businesses, Tax Administrator Robert Rowland said.
Stunned residents said Wednesday they thought Smith was paying the water bill all along.
Monthly rent — $210 for Circle Drive and $250 for Matika Village — is supposed to include water.
“If they do shut the water off, what are we going to do?” said Jeff Fields, who has lived in Circle Drive mobile home park for eight years.
Elderly and disabled tenants have nowhere else to go, Fields said.
Smith told the Post his money woes stem from a former employee who embezzled $150,000 from him last year. No one was charged.
Smith said he plans to pay his debts as soon as he can and doesn’t want his tenants to suffer.
As the summer heat settles over Salisbury, city officials said they hope they will not be forced to turn off the water. They said they’ve set up several payment plans, but Smith repeatedly fails to make good on promises to pay.
“The last thing we want to do is stop those folks from getting water,” Assistant City Manager Doug Paris said.
City officials have visited the parks three times to warn tenants their water will be turned off unless Smith pays.
Every month since April, they have hand-delivered courtesy notices telling tenants to “take whatever precautions are necessary” to protect themselves from the loss of water.
“We are trying to do the right thing on this,” Paris said.
The city provided a list of low-income housing options throughout Rowan County, although many have waiting lists, said Jim Behmer, Salisbury-Rowan Utilities director.
Smith’s water account has been delinquent for a year, and he “hasn’t even come close the last four months” to paying, Behmer said.
Minimum standards
A dwelling becomes uninhabitable the day the water is turned off, said Chris Branham, code services manager who helped distribute notices. City employees Ruth Chaparro Kennerly and Mike Cotilla, who speak Spanish, accompanied Branham and Behmer to serve as interpreters.
If the mobile homes can’t meet minimum housing standards, residents would have between 30 and 45 days before eviction, Branham said.
During the past two days, county officials also made the rounds at Circle Drive and Matika Villa in an effort to help collect unpaid taxes.
Tenants in between 55 and 60 units have been instructed to pay their rent to the county, not to Smith, Rowland said. The county will attach additional rents if Smith doesn’t pay his debt, Rowland said.
Ultimately, if nothing else works, the county will be forced to foreclose on the properties, an “absolute last resort,” Rowland said.
“All the county wants to do is treat everybody the same,” he said. “We have given him multiple chances.”
The county will try today to negotiate another payment plan with Smith, Rowland said.
Tenants paid
Tenants said they have faithfully paid their rent every month, often in cash.
“It’s not fair that we pay rent on time and he’s not paying” the water bill, Fabian Martinez said through a friend who acted as an interpreter.
Martinez, who works at Parkdale Mills, said he bought a mobile home in Circle Drive from Smith in March. Two weeks later, he received the first warning notice from the city.
He said he asked if he could pay for his own water, but the mobile homes don’t have individual meters. Each neighborhood has a master meter, which the city discourages, Behmer said.
Joann Bird said everyone in Circle Drive has limited income. She’s lived there for eight years and had planned to stay as long as she was able.
The Waffle House waitress said she has no family in the area and no place to go if the water is turned off.
Fields, who lives a few doors down from Bird, said Circle Drive has gone downhill since Smith bought it a year ago. Smith’s old firetruck, which he uses to trim branches, has been parked next to Fields’ home for some time.
“It’s an eyesore,” he said.
Smith said the truck’s hydraulic pump broke, but he has a replacement part and will fix and move it this month.
“This used to be a nice place, and I don’t want to see it go down bad,” Fields said.
J.W. Gobble bought a mobile home at the Circle Drive park . Since 1971, he’s never been afraid the city would turn off his water.
Laid off from Hanesbrands in 2008, Gobble said he has no income and doesn’t appreciate the city and county bothering tenants about Smith’s delinquencies.
“We were between a rock and a hard place already,” he said.
The government wants his rent, but Gobble said he’s afraid if he doesn’t pay Smith, he’ll be evicted.
“I think this should be between Tim and the city,” Gobble said. “They want their money from someplace. That’s what this looks like.”
Rowland said because state law allows the county to attach rent in cases of unpaid property taxes, he believes Smith could not evict anyone who pays the county instead of him.
City officials said they wanted to give residents plenty of notice before possibly turning off the water and still hope to avoid it.
“We’ll do everything we can to work with him,” Paris said, including waiving the 1.5 percent monthly penalty that’s been accruing for a year on his outstanding balance.
A lot of fear
Smith said the city has been scaring his tenants with the monthly warnings.
“My tenants are my family,” he said. “I care so much for them and try so hard to take care of them and provide a safe place for them to live.”
Smith said he and city officials agreed on the June 30 deadline, and he still plans to make a substantial payment by then. His tenants won’t go a day without water, he said.
“I’m working as hard as I can to get as much funds as I can,” he said.
Because of the city’s notices, about 10 to 15 percent of his tenants are refusing to pay rent this month, Smith said.
“How can I get things resolved if they are not paying?” he said. “They put a lot of fear in people. There’s no need for that.”
Smith’s father, W.D. Smith, built Matika Villa, he said. Smith bought the 105-unit property 10 years ago after his dad died, he said. He bought Circle Drive, which has 60 units, about a year and a half ago.
When the former employee embezzled $150,000 from him over time, Smith said it caused serious problems for his businesses. He said he lost six months worth of income.
Authorities told him there wasn’t enough evidence to support a criminal charge, Smith said. He said he thought about suing the former employee but “there was nothing there to get.”
Smith said he’s embarrassed that his financial problems have become public, but he’s hopeful a new product made and sold by his rubber recycling business will raise the cash he needs to pay his debts.
“This hasn’t been deliberate. This is something that came on us that my wife and I had no clue was going on,” he said. “I have tried to do the right thing.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.