LEESBURG -- Lee County Commissioner Bill Williams muttered his thoughts aloud, almost imperceptibly so, as he looked over the latest county garbage collection figures provided by Finance Director Heather Kittrell.
"We're getting closer," Williams said.
There was reason for Williams' optimism. The average number of monthly garbage customers billed by the county from July 2011 to April 2012 was at 9,124, while the average number of customers the county was billed for by the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority stood at 9,239.
A difference of only 115.
Figures one column further to the left, however, offered a summary of another part of the issue that has plagued the county since it started curbside garbage collection in 1994. The average number of customers who paid during that same period was 7,591.
Those 1,600-plus nonpaying customers are the reason the county has lost more than $9 million and counting in revenue over the past 18 years.
And they're the primary reason the commission is planning a new get-tough policy that might very well leave many in the county with uncollected garbage piled up around their homes.
"The message that has grown up around the garbage collection issue here over the years is that it's OK not to pay, that nothing will happen to you if you don't," County Administrator Tony Massey said Tuesday morning. "That's the wrong message
"In the next few weeks the Board of Commissioners is going to make one last effort to get (citizens who are behind in paying garbage pickup fees) to address the issue. If they don't, and then they put their garbage out and no one picks it up, they'll have no one to blame but themselves."
The commission, attempting to use a strategy now employed by 23 other counties in Georgia, voted in May of 2009 to place garbage fees on ad valorem tax bills. Tax Commissioner Susan Smith refused to comply with the ordinance after being ordered to do so, and the commission took her to court.
A Superior Court judge ruled that Smith must comply with the ordinance, she appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court and a high-court ruling was pending when the commission, facing a legislative recall petition that was delivered to Lee Probate Court Judge John Wheaton and an outcry by citizen groups in the county, decided to repeal the ordinance.
In its place, the commission passed a new ordinance that, among other things, allows the county to discontinue service to customers 60 days or more in arrears. The question became, though, who would pay the cost of removing garbage receptacles from the homes of customers whose service was discontinued.
The Solid Waste Management Authority initially balked at the suggestion that the county would remove as many as 300 names from its list of customers for which it is billed, and there were rumblings that a lawsuit might be considered.
But, as Commission Chairman Ed Duffy points out, the Lee contingent went armed with a potent weapon: a clearly worded contractual stipulation.
"What we planned to do is consistent with the original contract the county signed with (the authority in 1996)," Duffy said. "It says very specifically, 'Thereafter, and for the duration of the agreement, the participant (county) shall promptly inform the authority of any new or discontinued service, and the authority may rely upon the participant for such information.'
"We had discussed the possibility of the county taking those green receptacles from customers' homes, but we have no authority to do that. Those garbage bins belong to Veolia (Environmental Services, the Solid Waste Authority's collection agent), and they will determine whether they pick them up or just not collect the garbage in them."
Lee Utility Services Manager LeClaire Bryan actually rode the routes with Veolia representatives to verify garbage pickup at addresses presented by the company, and Kittrell did her own house-to-house audit to make sure the county's customer list matched Veolia's.
"That was step one," Massey said. "It started with our staff last summer. There were discrepancies with the numbers, so they did a physical inventory (of customers served). LeClaire, Heather and other staff members did a great job of verifying customers."
Still, the process was costly.
Bryan had sought to increase collections through the court system, filing 1,069 cases from 2010-2012. Of the $626,370.24 owed, the courts managed to collect $268,397.71, around 43 percent. An additional $85,226.19 was collected in consent judgments.
Still, the county had to pay $100 in court fees for each case it filed (some $70 of which was returned to the county upon collection), and the collection rate was not enough to signify success.
"There's been a really excellent effort by the county to get our arms around this issue," Kittrell said. "But people don't realize that it costs a lot of money to go after the people who refuse to pay their bills."
Duffy and other county officials insist that the addition of the fees to tax bills would still be the most efficient way to assure garbage fees are paid, and he reminded citizens that they have been granted the authority to approve that method.
"Every citizen will have an opportunity to express their opinion July 31 on the nonbinding referendum (on primary ballots) putting trash bills on the tax roles," the commission chairman said. "That's the best way of ensuring that every citizen pays their fair share."
But Massey said the reality of the situation is that approval by voters is unlikely. And he's preparing to start aggressively pursuing new tactics that include nonpickup for delinquent accounts. He's meeting with the Crisp County authority next week to shore up plans, and the county will move forward with its plans a short time later.
"Essentially, our goal is to improve this process -- which has been a problem here for years now -- and make it as efficient and as cost-effective as possible," the county administrator said. "The only way we'll ever be able to do it is to stay on top of this issue. We owe that to the citizens of Lee County who pay their bills.
"Going forward, we have to always be aware that it would be so easy to get right back in the situation we're in now."