Hillsboro council discusses policy on delinquent bills

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
During a meeting in which the Hillsboro City Council fulfilled its obligation to pay bills owed to others, members spent a significant amount of time discussing what to do about residents who haven’t fulfilled their obligation to pay the utility bill they owe the city.

The meeting began with the council approving invoices totaling $327,330 for work done for water-plant upgrades by Utility Contractors and EBH & Associates, and then $286,838 for work on the aquatic center by Carruthers Construction and Burbach Aquatics.

When Councilor Len Coryea noted the sizable amount of money they had authorized for payment, City Administrator Steve Garrett noted, “That’s what happens when a city is doing things.”

Later in the meeting, Coryea noted that the city was taking “a fairly big hit this month,” referring to the routine list of unpaid utility bills by residents who have left town.

The list included the names of six debtors who owed between $80 and one who owed more than $1,434 for a business-related bill. The six unpaid amounts totaled $3,051.

Mayor Delores Dalke told Garrett to be sure the city attorney reviews the bills so they can be submitted to the state before Dec. 31. Hillsboro participates in a state program where debts owed to city governments can be garnished from tax refunds.

“The people who don’t pay their city bill often have a tax refund coming to them,” Dalke said.

Coryea asked if the city can take action more quickly on unpaid bills, including turning off electricity more promptly.

Garrett said the current city policy is that utility bills are mailed by the first of the month and residents have until the 15th of the month to pay them. If they miss the deadline, the are notified in 10 days that electricity will be turned off unless payment is made or a payment plan is agreed upon.

Dalke said, in truth, the city has no “payment plan” policy on the books. “It’s just been done that way,” she said.

Compounding the problem, Dalke said, is that meters are read around the 15th of the previous month. By the time the payment deadline is passed, the bill actually is 21/2 months old before the city takes action against the debtor.

Dalke said she lobbied for years to get a faster turnaround, noting that the local gas company sends the bill three days after its read.

Attempts have been made to change the schedule of city meter readers, she said, adding, “They start doing it, and then fall back to their old ways.”

“People have no sense of responsibility anymore,” Coryea said. “Everybody wants me to pay their bills.”

No decisions were made on the issue, but Garrett was asked to bring information to the next meeting indicating how much is owed the city in past-due bills and how many people are currently operating under a payment plan.

Late in the meeting, Coryea raised another instance where a few residents have been irresponsible because they are not doing anything about their children who have been defacing public property with graffiti.

Coryea said local police have a good idea who the juvenile vandals are but essentially can’t take legal action against them unless they catch the vandals in the act.

Coryea suggested a “ludicrous thought” for addressing the issue: initiating a “renters tax” on certain households where the suspected juveniles are known to live.

“A couple of rentals are drug houses and they are problem houses-an we know it,” he said. “Somehow we have to make uncomfortable for parents who let their kids do those kinds of things.”

Dalke said Coryea’s solution probably wouldn’t be legal, but she understood his frustration.

In other business, the council:

n approved with little discussion the preliminary and final plats for the land project proposed by the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church.

The church has purchased around 16.6 acres of ground within the large Prairie Pointe development owned by Dorothy Soldan. About 11 acres has been designated for a new church campus; the remaining 5.6 acres will be sold to an independent developer for a housing development.

n challenged Garrett about a plan being offered by ENG, the city’s energy consulting firm, to work with local business owners who might be eligible to receive sales-tax credits for reducing their energy use. Dalke said ENG’s program would work against the city’s strategy of paying for the aquatic center with sales-tax revenue.

n approved Ordinance 1118, which addresses a loan application with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for interim financing for the city’s sewer lagoon project east of town.

n approved city policy No. 66, which states that the city will no longer allow the attachment of special assessments to undeveloped land in a subdivision. Instead, all costs must be applied to the lots within the phase being developed.

n voted to close out out two unnecessary accounts within the city’s bookkeeping system-the Employee Benefits Fund and the 1996 Water Surplus.

The action, recommended by the city auditors, allows the city to transfer the money in those two accounts-totaling a little over $12,800-into the general fund.

n heard from Garrett that he will be participating next week in an “incident command school” sponsored by Homeland Security in Alabama.

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