Lee seeking unpaid funds

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

LEESBURG, Ga. -- When Al Crace packed his belongings and headed back to north Georgia, his six-month tenure as interim Lee County administrator over, he left behind a laundry list of priority issues for Tony Massey, the person who would move permanently into the office Crace was vacating.

Included on that list was a call for county officials to increase efforts to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid utilities fees and bills, some of which have been delinquent for years.

There are some in the county who callously claim Crace was merely stating the obvious when he pointed out the need to try and recoup the county's losses in uncollected solid waste, street lighting and other utilities fees, but the fact is the issue has been bubbling under the surface for far longer than any of the County Commission's current five members have been in office.

And while no one is saying Crace's memo was accepted as a call to action, the fact remains that the county has begun to make headway in collecting the delinquent fees owed by its citizens.

In 2010, $145,639.22 of the $354,400.39 in unpaid solid waste fees were collected by the county. Additionally, $55,107.24 in unpaid franchise fees owed the county by cable provider Mediacom was collected after Crace and County Attorney Jimmy Skipper sent a strong letter to the company demanding that the long-due fees be paid.

And Lee Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander said his office is "halfway through" updating billing records for street lighting that will help alleviate an $80,000-to-$100,000-a-year shortfall.

"Lee County is facing the same problems as other counties by experiencing loss of revenue," County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "Therefore, the county is attempting to collect revenues that are currently due.

"The Board of Commissioners has instructed Utilities Services to pursue aggressively the collection of delinquent garbage accounts. In the year 2010, 615 accounts were processed for collection through the Magistrate Court; subsequently, 41 percent of that amount was collected."

Duffy said the commission has instructed Utilities Services to "make every effort to collect on delinquent accounts through every available means," and the director of that department said she's taken that directive to heart.

"We're taking an aggressive approach," LeClaire Bryan said. "We're doing everything we can to keep (collections) from going to Magistrate Court, but we also realize that court proceedings are an important part of the collections process. We don't want to (take citizens to court), but we have to do it.

"We've mailed letters to individuals listed on all (delinquent) accounts, and if we get no response we contact the property owner. If we get no response at that time, the bills are then sent to the property owner for collection. If all that fails, we begin court proceedings."

Bryan said that miscommunication is the primary culprit for the large number of past-due accounts.

"People who simply refuse to pay are really a small number of the accounts on our books," she said. "A lot of people move into a place that already has a trash container, and they assume (collection) is part of other fees they may be paying. The former tenants or landlord doesn't let them know.

"We're now in the second phase of our collection plan, working from a master list to make sure no accounts are overlooked."

Massey said that while the county is getting positive results from its efforts, the unpaid accounts remain a priority concern. Even with its current success in collecting fees, Utilities Services is in the process of submitting 541 more delinquent accounts to Magistrate Court for collection proceedings.

"We're up to an 80 percent collection rate this year on a simply voluntary basis," Massey said. "That's not bad. However, the other 20 percent certainly don't deserve a free ride."

Indeed, Duffy said an unpaid solid waste balance of 20 percent would leave the county short $400,000 a year.

"We can't afford to leave an unpaid balance that large," the commission chairman said. "Given the current millage rate, over a three-year period that amounts to 2 mills."

Alexander said the county has an ordinance that requires developers to put in street lighting in all new developments, and that homeowners in existing developments that do not have the lights can petition to have them installed. Residents in neighborhoods with the lights pay a monthly $3 charge.

"We're in the process of finding if all the people in these neighborhoods are being billed," the Planning and Engineering director said. "We've found that a lot of them didn't get on the billing list, so we want to get that done. That will take care of a lot of the shortage.

"Once we finish that process, we'll start looking into whether the county's being billed the proper amount (by electricity providers).

There may be overcharges, or the $3 we're charging customers may not be enough."

While the solid waste and lighting shortfalls are the primary targets of the county's collection efforts, Crace's revenue hit list also includes losses for utilities bills and misdirected franchise, E-911 and sales tax fees.

"We're moving in the right direction," Massey said. "This issue wasn't created overnight, and it won't be solved overnight. It's going to take some time."

But Duffy said the county has a moral as well as a fiscal responsibility to the county's citizens to collect the unpaid fees.

"It is not fair for the citizens who pay their bills for services rendered that some citizens refuse to pay their fair share, even though they receive the same services," he said. "At present, we are employing every available option to ensure that all citizens that receive services in the county pay their fair share."