LEESBURG, Ga. -- Catherine Ponson is spending a lot of time in court these days.
Not the locale you might expect for the newly-appointed Utility Services Director in Lee County, but it's become her second home.
Ponson has been in court to help collect part of the $688,895 that some residents of Lee County have not paid in trash collection fees over the past couple of years.
The effort is working, according to Lee County Administrator Tony Massey. Collecting the delinquent fees has been an emphasis over the past few months, said Massey, who credits Ponson with much of the success. He also commended LeClaire Bryan, who recently retired as Lee Utility Services director, for her work in collecting the unpaid bills.
In a report to Massey this week, Ponson said $370,142, or 53.7 percent of the unpaid total that has been turned over to the courts, has been collected.
"The collected amount includes those who paid all at once and consent judgments that were satisfied," Ponson reported.
Ponson also has obtained 135 open consent judgments, which could bring in another $72,103. Of that total, she has already collected $29,906, or 41.5 percent, of the total. The consent judgments are basically repayment plans approved by the court.
Ponson said 102 accounts remain suspended with Code Enforcement working to cite the customers and prevent illegal dumping.
Lee County residents pay $23 a month to have their trash collected by Veolia Environmental Services. Lee County is about midway into a 25-year contract with Veolia to handle the trash collection duties.
Once the county began emphasizing the collection of the tardy trash bills, Massey said an audit was initiated to make sure Lee County was paying its contractor the correct amount. For example, Bryant rode the routes with Veolia to verify garbage pickup at specific addresses.
Last December, Veolia was showing that it was collecting from about 9,600 accounts. Lee County, on the other hand, could verify just 8,700 accounts. A recent audit by both Waste Services and Lee County corrected that total to 9,200 customers.
"When we did an audit, we found that they were billing us for a neighborhood that was actually in Albany," Massey said. "We got all of that corrected, and both concur at the 9,200 level. That is a count that Catherine can verify and they can also verify. We're very comfortable with that total now."
Culling the list and getting an accurate count will save the county between $60,000 and $70,000 a year, Massey said.
Massey said the aggressive approach to collecting the past-due trash bills actually began as early as January 2010. From 2003 until 2010, Massey said, little was done to collect the past-due funds.
Of the almost $700,000 in delinquent accounts, Ponson said $194,190 remains uncollectable.
"These are the hard-core uncollectables," Massey said. "That includes anything from the people who have died, have filed bankruptcy, left town and moved. This total goes back to January 2010.
"When you consider that the budgeted revenue during that period was $2.6 million a year, you're looking at an uncollectable rate of about 4 percent. You're never going to get 100 percent collected, but we're making some real headway."
Before 2010, Massey admits, there was not much of a history of the county aggressively pursuing the back debts.
"That has changed. ... It just wasn't fair to the people who were paying to let others have a free ride," Massey said.
Massey said Ponson has emphasized the collection of back funds since she was appointed Utility Services Director on Oct. 1.
"Catherine has really been on top of it since she took over down there," Massey said. "It's been a collective effort, and it's going to take a collective effort to stay on top of it. These numbers change every day."
Currently, Ponson says those who fall two months behind in paying their garbage bill receive a letter giving them two weeks to pay or face legal action.
"We're getting positive response from that, but there are always ones who will not heed our warning," she said. "It costs us $100 to take them to court but just 45 cents (stamp) to send them that warning, and it's paying off."
Massey said trash customers presently do not have to pay a deposit to receive services.
"It's something that has been discussed by commissioners in the past, and it would not surprise me it it were discussed again in the future," he said. "We just haven't moved forward with it yet."