Council hears utility billing update, tables vacant property registration

By Sheryl Roadcap -

SIDNEY — Updates on the city’s utility billing and the vacant property registration were discussed Monday during Sidney’s City Council meeting.

Karen Berning, revenue collection manager, gave an update on the city’s revenue collections department. Her report included payment options: AutoPay (customer provides bank account number), customer’s online banking, online via the city’s website, and payment by cash, check or money order in person, in the drop box or by mail.

According to 2017 statistics, residents paid most often by cash, check or money order; the average monthly usage is 3,474 out of a total of 6,638 for all the methods combined. This method is the most costly for the city, Berning said.

Customers also have the option to receive bills by email. Currently the city is receiving 207 customers receive ebills instead of paper, which is up from 169 in 2017. This cuts the city’s costs for postage, paper bills and envelopes. It also offers advantages to the customer, including immediate access to the bill and a 13-month history of their bills. Berning reported that the city receives 431 monthly payments via autopay, 812 monthly payments from customer’s online banking and 886 monthly payments through the city’s website at

In other business, council revisited the previously tabled ordinance dealing with the registration of vacant property from the July 9 meeting. After Vacant Property Inspector Kyle Havenar presented council with a revision of the ordinance, pictures of examples of local properties that would be required to register, and some discussion, council again voted to table the ordinance.

Havenar told council that along with input from council members, city staff also received feedback from community members, including the following:

• Concerns about registration requirements for seasonally vacant properties.

• Concerns that the fee structure is to high. The fees are structured to cover both the cost to implement the vacant property registration program and provide an incentive for the owner to take action, Havenar said.

• Multiple owners voiced frustration about being unable to sell a property because of an adjacent vacant property, and he said, support for the vacant property regulations to address these problems. Havenar said the proposed regulations will decrease the likelihood of blight, vacant buildings negatively affecting neighboring properties.

• Concerns about specific exemptions not being included. He said exemptions included in the regulations are those that are most common. In order to reduce complexity and the potential for confusion, he said staff recommends not adding exemptions for very specific and uncommon situations. A “catch-all” exemption is included for unusual situations.

• Enforcing the property maintenance codes that exist will solve the issue. Havenar said the property maintenance regulations are enforced. There are limits to the property maintenance regulations that do not address the particular issues related to vacant properties. He included a summary and evaluation for council to review which can be found on the city’s website.

• Assertions that investors are choosing not to invest because of the number of deteriorated vacant buildings., and that they will not want to invest because of the requirements of the vacant property regulations. Havenar said that each investor has their own set of goals and criteria for what they consider a good investment and what would create more risk than they are willing to take. Overall, he said, vacant property regulations tend to reduce the risk, because an investor has a level of assurance that neighboring properties will not become a vacant blighting influence.

• Regulations should not include properties being used in violation of the zoning code, for storage. Havenar noted that while it is appropriate for an accessory building to be used for storage when the primary building and use are compliant with the zoning code, primary buildings that are not designed or intended to be used for storage create the same, or even more, of hazard for firefighters, police, neighbors, and the community than an empty vacant building.

• Request staff to review Bellefontaine’s vacant property ordinance. Havenar said city staff reviewed Bellefontaine’s regulations and found they are virtually identical to Sidney’s proposed regulations and are based on the same model code, with the exception that Bellefontaine’s code is for residential properties only.

After Havenar’s presentation, Vice Mayor Mardie Milligan thanked Havenar for his work, but had several questions and suggestions of areas in which she felt the ordinance still needs clarified or revisited. She also expressed her view that the program should have lower fees, and instead needs a “heavier fine structure.”

Mayor Mike Barhorst agreed with one of Milligan’s points that a definition of an abandoned building is needed. He noted, however, that the development plan of money paid in fees will be returned once the property owner has fulfilled their obligations. He also commented that some sellers over price their homes.

Council member Ed Hamaker noted that issues with properties Havenar showed did not happen over night, but rather over several years. He also said he liked the regulations presented and felt they needed to be enforced.

Council member Darryl Thurber questioned why the city would be exempt from penalties. Mayor Mike Barhorst noted it would be unnecessary for the city to charge themselves and basically take money from one pocket to another.

Council member Joe Ratermann asked for Milligan, and she agreed, to send a copy of her complied list of suggestions for city staff and council to review, consider and discuss at the next council meeting on Aug. 27.

Sidney resident Merrill Asher spoke in disagreement with Barhorst’s comment about “moving money from one pocket to another.” Asher noted that “it really doesn’t cost (the city) a dime.”

Sidney resident Tom Asher spoke in favor of transparency, and opposition to registration fees. He said city owned vacant buildings “needs to be in the public eye just as much as any individual,” which he said, is not as much about money as it is transparency. He also expressed the issue, that to him, is about not just vacant properties, but derelict properties. The ordinance would be better understood and received, he said, if it focused upon derelict properties. Finally he expressed the need offer incentives for investment into properties not just punitive measures for violations.

Council also held an executive session to consider the purchase of property for public purposes, preparing for negotiations or bargaining sessions with public employees, the discipline of a public employee and pending or imminent court action. No action was taken after council emerged from the session.

By Sheryl Roadcap

Reach the writer at 937-538-4823.

Reach the writer at 937-538-4823.