Texas utility-billing company told to quit doing business in state
Seattle Times consumer-affairs reporter
The order against Minol-MTR alleges the company is acting as a collection agency without the required license. Though it was issued July 31, the order drew attention only after a Seattle City Council member alluded to it at a briefing this week.
Minol officials did not return a phone call yesterday. But Harumi Tucker Tolbert, a regulatory program manager who is handling the case for the licensing department, said the company has denied it is a collection agency.
Seattle attorney Henry Jameson filed a notice of appearance on behalf of Minol, and the company has requested a hearing. None has been scheduled.
Minol is one of at least a dozen companies that has sprung up in Seattle and other urban areas in recent years to handle water and sewer charges on behalf of landlords. Historically, such utilities were rolled into the rent. But that started changing when utility rates began to outpace inflation.
Under third-party billing, the tenant receives a bill for water and sewage, which is separate from the rent. The landlord or his agent is responsible for the bill. But an increasing number of tenants — now nearly one in five in Seattle — receive their bills from companies such as Minol that tack on administrative fees and sometimes charge late fees.
The state's order lists three tenants, one from Seattle and two from Bellevue, who earlier this year received bills from Minol for utility usage. Each bill included an administrative fee of $4.25 or $4.50.
Yesterday, Tolbert said the order against Minol was not rooted in the company's practice of charging administrative or late fees. Rather, she said, the law generally requires a license for anyone who collects or attempts to collect on behalf of a third party.
Operating as a collection agency without a license is an unfair act or practice, represents a nuisance and is subject to an injunction, the state said in its order.
The company is supposed to be abiding by the cease-and-desist order, Tolbert said. But to date, the state has done nothing to see if Minol is, she said.
The emergence of third-party billing has resulted in calls for consumer-protection legislation, because the bills frequently are estimated using a variety of formulas, including elements such as square footage and number of occupants.
Such estimates have drawn fire from tenants who note that they fail to account for vacations or other absences from a rental unit. Also, they can be problematic if more people actually live in an apartment than the landlord knows about.
Under state law that took effect last January, the Department of Licensing was given new disciplinary tools to enforce its regulations, including the power to issue cease-and-desist orders. The case against Minol is the first time the state has exercised that power, Tolbert said.
It's possible that similar orders could be issued against other third-party-billing companies, she said. For now, the state has received complaints only against Minol, Tolbert said.
Both the Seattle City Council and state lawmakers have weighed — but so far not adopted — laws designed to regulate third-party billing. Such a measure is expected to surface again in Olympia next year, and an ordinance could be reconsidered as soon as Tuesday before Seattle City Councilwoman Margaret Pageler's Water & Health Committee.
Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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