Thursday, May 11, 2006
Board mulls collection of late garbage bills
By SUE WATSON
An 11th hour decision on what to do with an appeal from a landowner whose vehicle tags were held up due to an overdue renter’s garbage bill prompted debate in the board room last week.
The man, whose tags were due to run out May 1, had requested the board of ssupervisors to allow him to pay $100 on the overdue garbage bill and then schedule monthly payments until the $600 he was stuck with by a renter was paid.
Supervisor Willie Flemon motioned to accept the $100 payment and arrange a payment schedule or promissory note for the balance. If the citizen failed to pay the rest of the garbage bill, the customer could be taken to Justice Court.
Supervisor Ronnie Joe Bennett expressed concern that more citizens would flock to the boardroom requesting similar treatment or pay a portion of the bill, get their tags registered, and then not pay the rest.
“It’s a can of worms,” said Bennett. “If you are going to do it, you should agree to set up payment (schedules) for anyone in trouble. You will have people who can’t get their tags to pay a little and run.”
Marshall County has nearly $450,000 in delinquent garbage bills on the books.
Board attorney Tacey Clark Clayton advised the board to form a consistent installment method, if the board does establish a policy for those who come to the board with unusual and unique circumstances.
In this case, the landowner did not know his renter was in arrears on his garbage bill or that as a landowner he was ultimately responsible if the renter left without paying the bill.
At least one landlord has told the board he has his renter’s bill sent to him and he adds the garbage bill to the rent.
“This man is going to struggle to pay $600 and his tags, too,” offered Chancery Clerk Chuck Thomas.
Clayton said the county already has a solid waste ordinance and at some point may have to add to it that the county will require people with appeals to go before a hearing officer and clear all of them in one day. That would cost the county the hourly rate of an attorney to serve as hearing officer, she said.
Clayton said she has received about 15 calls from people pleading for relief and giving various stories telling why they are in a jam with their tags and delinquent garbage bills, she said. State statutes allow counties to hold up tag registration until the delinquent bill is paid in full. Failure to renew registration tags on vehicles also puts the citizen in a bind with the law.
“It is just a decision of the board,” Clayton said. “Most cases (coming before a hearing officer) will be denied because most (appeals) have no merit.”
Clayton said the board of supervisors cannot legally waive a fee or tax.
“You can set up a hearing officer and once the message is out, people will stop asking for a hearing,” she said.
“Could we appoint someone?” Bennett asked. “Does it have to be an attorney?”
“They may question the decision if the hearing officer is just an ordinary citizen,” said George Zinn III, District 4 supervisor. “Is it long and drawn out?”
“You can do 20 in a day,” said Clayton. “They tell a story taking about an hour. I think you could knock it out in a day.”
Attorney’s fees may vary anywhere between $75 to $170 an hour, Clayton said.
“We are in a bad position,” said Zinn. “We have people who need their tags. Some people who are just landlords are not aware of the law.”
Clayton said about 90 percent of those who call her are not entitled but one caller did get a ticket for not having the vehicle registered. She asked the judge for a continuance.
“There was a real question of whether he owed it (the garbage bill),” said Clayton. “The law does not say. Some counties have had bad experiences from (using) hearing officers.”
But using a hearing officer does mean the county has met due process before tags are held, she said.
“You have to give them a hearing,” Clayton said.
Flemon offered to rescind his motion that would let the citizen schedule the balance of the bill on a monthly payment system.
“It’s time for us to do something,” he said.
Bennett argued that the board should act on this one appeal one way or another then decide how to deal with the rest.
“His personal garbage bill is up to date,” Thomas said.
“You can say you are not forgiving the garbage bill, you are putting it on a schedule of payment,” Clayton said.
Bennett argued there are too many delinquent payments for large sums, a number as large as $1,500.
“They can come in here and pay $50, get their tag, and wait until next year to pay another $50,” said Bennett. “You’d never collect it. But this guy here would be an exception in my book.
“We ought to decide and have a policy - say they pay half the money and get Tacey to put the rest on a schedule (of payment).”
Supervisor Keith Taylor argued that landlords should first know they will be responsible for delinquent bills of their renters, that the matter had not been publicized. He called for putting that information on the monthly garbage bill.
“Eighty percent of the calls I get are from landlords who say they don’t know they are responsible for the debt, and the board of supervisors did not forgive the debt,” said Clayton.
She offered to outline various procedure for the board to choose from.
Many landlords and individuals have relatives living next door and share a can, without realizing they need two containers to meet the requirements of compulsory enrollment of each household, Clayton said.
County administrator Larry Hall explained that the county cannot recover delinquent debt on garbage service without some action.
“What is our position if someone gets a citation for not getting a registration tag?” he asked.
“Yes, we are liable because (in this instance) there was no information on the back of the bill or a certified letter was not sent,” Clayton said.
With that the board voted on a motion by Taylor and seconded by Flemon to allow the appellant to get his tag. The motion passed 3-2.
Then Clayton asked for clarification.
“We do not have authority to just waive a garbage bill,” she said. “The three of you (who voted aye) may just get to split that garbage bill. To allow him to get a tag because he didn’t know, that gives me a problem.”
Taylor clarified his motion, that the motion was not to forgive the garbage bill, but to allow the gentleman to get his tags and pay the past-due bill on a schedule.
Thomas advised that the gentleman has seven days left to get his tag.
The board then voted to rescind the motion to allow the gentleman to get his tags.
The matter was discussed againwith no action taken at the May 8 meeting either on the gentleman’s request or on Clayton’s suggestion of using a hearing officer to handle appeals.
The next meeting of the board of supervisors is set for May 15 at 5 p.m.
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