Increased efforts collect millions in unpaid utility bills
The city’s get-tough stance on delinquent water and sewer service invoices has produced a flurry of payments while raising the ire of some residents who find water shutoffs extreme or say they have been unfairly charged administrative expenses.
Meanwhile, the largest delinquent account is shrouded in confusion. Universal Properties, which owns the plaza on Route 2 where Best Buy and Home Depot, among other stores, are located, owes the city an undisclosed amount in water and sewer usage bills. Now in the hands of assistant city solicitor Diana Pearson, who did not return calls, questions are being raised on how plaza tenants were billed and whom they paid.
Until this summer, when the city required plaza tenants to install their own water meters, a single meter served the entire plaza.
City Tax Collector Kayla Jones said tenants are now billed separately. “Going forward, we’re in great shape,” she said.
Overall, the city’s diligence had paid off.
As of April 2016, the city was carrying $6.2 million in past due utility invoices. Of that amount, $4.1 million was made up of invoices 120 days late or later, Jones said in a recent interview. She said the group had a “history of non-payment.” Now the city is carrying $2.6 million in delinquencies, of which $2 million is 120 days late or more.
Getting to this point has involved numerous notifications, as well as water shutoffs of approximately 150 residents and businesses. The tax collector has also entered into 793 payment plans, whereby a shutoff won’t occur and the city won’t place the property into a tax sale as long as the payment schedule and current charges are met. Under the plans, the delinquent amount is to be paid off within a year.
In the latest crackdown, the city has targeted 1,200 property owners who are delinquent for at least two quarters and owe more than $500. In preparation for a Dec. 1 tax sale, the city sent its list of delinquencies to Rhode Island Tax Title that prepares the tax sale in late August. Letters were then sent on Sept. 9 to the delinquent accounts.
Jones said hundreds of people have responded to notification of the tax sale, making payments to avoid the sale and pay off amounts due. Certified letters as well as regular mail letters will go out on Oct. 20 as a reminder to those who still haven’t taken action.
She noted that the purpose of regular mail letters is to inform those people who are under the misconception they are exempt from the sale if they refuse a certified letter. As of this week the tax sale represents $1.6 million in unpaid utility bills.
Despite what Jones says has been a concerted effort to inform people of the consequences of not paying their utility bills, at least one resident, Patrick Quinn, feels it has been poorly communicated. Even though Quinn reduced his outstanding balance to less than $500 by the end of August, he was charged the $200 fee for a title search when he responded to the tax sale letter he received in September.
“They’re changing the rules and not informing anyone,” he protested.
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur lauds the collection effort, although he says it should have been done earlier and could have saved anguish for many people.
“I’m glad the mayor and administration finally saw the light,” he said. “It’s unfortunate they ignored it all these years and allowed people to get backed up two and three years.”
Ladouceur focused on the issue when the city placed 2,500 properties into a 2014 tax sale. He found that up until the tax sale, the city had not made a diligent effort to make collections.
“The city never sent delinquency notices, never had shutoffs; how can you run a business and not send a notice?”
Ladouceur formed a committee that developed a programmed approach to addressing delinquents, set up a plan for hardship cases and recommended the use of shutoffs. Ladouceur contends the city could have been in the spot where it is today a year ago had it followed the committee’s recommendations, but he contends the administration chose to wait because it was an election year.
“Get the job done and forget the politics,” he advised. “Because of lack of leadership we end up in this big disaster,” he said.
Jones and Ladouceur agree that staying on top of delinquencies not only helps people from falling behind to a point where they face a shutoff or a tax sale but is also of help to those who stay on top of their bills.
“Hopefully,” Jones said, “there are no increases in rates. This helps everyone as a whole.”
Ladouceur believes aggressive collections are fair to all ratepayers.