Town to get tough on delinquent utility payments

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:46

    State wants 'more teeth’ in collection policies, By Fran Hardy Sparta — The town’s 2011-2012 municipal budget was not approved by the state until last Friday. Officials in Trenton said the township had been too soft on debtors and wanted more assurance that delinquent utility bills would be collected before they approved those expected funds as part of the budget. Sparta Mayor Scott Seelagy said last week that Trenton wants Sparta to put “more teeth” in its collection policies. To comply with the state’s requests, the township council introduced three ordinances last week to amend ordinances on water, solid waste, and sewage. The amendments include tougher language regarding delinquent payments and, for the first time, include a 10 percent penalty if the bill is not paid by the due date. If a bill remains unpaid for 30 days or more, service will be discontinued. The three new ordinances were sent to Trenton. Seelagy said the township manager, David Troast, received word last Friday that state officials were satisfied with the town’s new policies. The state has now given final approval for the municipal budget, and the council is free to adopt the budget at its next meeting. Of Sparta’s $30 million municipal budget, $6 million represents the three utility budgets: water, solid waste, and sewage. Uncollected water bills have been the major problem, with at least $630,000 in bills remaining unpaid for 2010. “In the past, we’ve not had the issue of non-payment of bills affecting the budget like it has now,” Troast said. He said the new ordinances are needed to enforce timely payment of utility bills, and that many other towns, like Newton, have similar ordinances. The high number of uncollected funds created what Troast called “the perfect storm” of a budget crisis this year. The town is also owed unpaid property taxes to the tune of $880,000, on top of the $760,000 in lost revenue due to the large number of tax appeals. “The state needs assurances we will collect the outstanding funds,” Troast said. “I’m confident we will be fine. Sparta is a great town and we’ll collect what we need. Next year’s budget will be even leaner, but I want no lay-offs. This has been a very difficult time for the town.” The township’s chief financial officer, Mike Guarino, said that because the budget was not approved by the state’s May deadline, the tax rate has not yet been certified. He said estimated tax bills will be sent out in the interim for the second consecutive year. Last year it was because the county budget was not approved by the deadline. Guarino said in the past 20 years, Sparta has only twice sent out estimated tax bills. The three new utility ordinances are scheduled for a public hearing and will be considered for final passage at the council’s next regular meeting on June 28.

    The ordinance will mean the township will charge 10 percent interest on bills not paid by the due date and service will be shut off after 30 days.