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County owed $171,000 in garbage fees

Lincoln County officials are making another effort to collectapproximately $171,000 in unpaid garbage bills accumulated sincethe fee system was established in 1994.

Debbie Brent, county solid waste coordinator, said more than 600accounts are a year or more delinquent. Delinquent amounts rangefrom $108 to $603, with the average being around $285.

“Some are going to date back to when we started,” Brent said.”That means they haven’t paid anything in eight years.”

Since June 13 of this year, 71 accounts have been turned over tojustice court in the county’s latest collection attempt. Brent saidshe is setting aside a day in the near future to complete paperworkon the remaining accounts.

“Hopefully, I can make a dent in it,” Brent said. “I’m going todo my best.”

After getting a judgment in justice court, Brent said her officemust wait 15 days to give the person time to pay. Justice courtaction so far resulted in some increased collection and a goodsolid waste quarter.

“It is getting some attention, but not as much as we want,”Brent said.

After the waiting period, the judgments are enrolled in circuitcourt and a lien is placed against the defendant’s property,meaning the owner could not borrow money or sale the property untilthe delinquent fee is paid. Judgments received so far were enrolledin circuit court Wednesday, Brent said.

The county last tried the justice court route in 1997, but therewas little response, Brent said. Collection agency and otherefforts have also not produced the desired results.

Brent said the majority of the delinquent accounts were elderlyresidents on Social Security and some others who have just refusedto pay the fee.

The justice court action has also revealed some people who havemoved and several who have died but continued to be billed. Brentencouraged deceased customers’ family members to notify her officeof the death so that the billing can be stopped.

In enacting the garbage fees, supervisors said they wanted thosewho use the garbage service to pay for it. They said it was notfair for property owners, through a tax levy, to fully pay for theservice that everyone uses.

“Those of us who pay taxes were having to pick up the bill forthe renters, and there’s a lot of rental property in the county,”Brent said.

Over the years, supervisors gradually removed the tax levy infavor of the fee system. Previously, a portion of the taxes paid byproperty owners, including those who owned vehicles, went to helppay for garbage service.

The county currently pays a private contractor $485,000 a yearfor pick up service. Another $160,000 a year is paid in disposalfees.

Brent said the best collection tool remains through car tagpurchase prohibitions. She said she can flag delinquent accountsstatewide so that the delinquency will show when people try to buya tag.

Lincoln County Tax Assessor-Collector Nancy Jordan said purchaseprohibition causes some aggravation for customers, but she is boundby law not to sell a tag if the solid waste bill is not paid. Shesaid the tag flagging is effective.

“It works probably as well as anything they could have placed onit,” Jordan said.

Jordan said her office cannot catch delinquent accounts ofpeople who don’t own cars, but tag accounts are checked againstnames and addresses in an effort to collect delinquent fees.

“There’s very few that get by us,” Jordan said.

While citizens can get a $1 a month discount for paying thegarbage bill for a year in advance, Brent said people get currenton their bills at car tag time.

“If they’re going to get a tag, they know they have to pay thegarbage fee first,” Brent said.

Tax office efforts notwithstanding, Brent said some people arestill finding ways around the system and not paying the bills. Shedid not give examples because she did not want to “further fuel thefire.”

“The system’s not fool-proof. They’re finding ways to slipthrough the cracks,” Brent said.

With some people’s ability to slip through, county officialswould like the legislature to change the solid waste law to put”more teeth” to county collection efforts.

“We don’t have a really strong enforcement tool,” said CountyAdministrator David Fields.

Currently, the county can garnish wages, but it must first findwhere a person works.

To improve collections, Fields suggested attaching thedelinquent amount to a person’s property taxes, but that would notcatch renters. Another suggestion was collecting the fees throughutility bills, but power companies may be reluctant to handlebilling for the county.

Despite the delinquent amount, Brent said collections are still”pretty good” and most people are paying the fees. However, thereis always room for improvement.

“It’s never going to be as good as you want it to be,” Brentsaid. “We want everyone to pay.”