Statesboro city officials are reworking a local ordinance after it came to light that they have not necessarily abided by it.
In July, City Manager Frank Parker was notified by representatives of the city’s Water/Wastewater Department that a business, South Georgia Realty LLC, had accrued more than $6,000 in unpaid utility bills over the course of several months.
The same information was made public when a concerned citizen, Bill Thomas — upon receiving an anonymous tip — spoke about the debt at a City Council meeting.
The built-up balance should not be possible according to the city’s code of ordinances, which reads “all bills not paid by the due date are subject to the late payment charge, and then immediate cut-off on the date printed on the bill.” And, “in the event of non-payment and service cut-off, the customer must pay the bill in full, the late payment charge, a cut-off charge if applicable, and pay a deposit if it was either waived, previously refunded, or was used to make the payment, late payment charge, and/or the cut-off charge.”
According to documents obtained by the Statesboro Herald via the Open Records Act, the company did, indeed, fail to provide several payments to the city for water services at various times from 2010 to 2013.
Records show the business was charged late fees but never a cut-off charge, and service, in fact, was never ended.
Why did city officials — in this case, the City Clerk’s Office — did not enforce rules set out by the ordinance? It has become common practice for the city to work with individuals or businesses on payment plans if they cannot meet due dates for water charges, officials said.
The practice is even more common, according to City Attorney Alvin Leaphart, for businesses like South Georgia Realty, which have several tenants included on their water bill.
“In the past, the city has had a policy, with those places where there are multiple tenants, to establish payment plans for landlords rather than terminate services for all tenants,” Leaphart said. “We have given discretion to the city clerk to be flexible and fair to everyone. We need to have the flexibility to work with different people. I don’t think any of the practices engaged in are particularly unfair. The intent was to be helpful and accommodating with this basic necessity. People can’t do without water.”
City Councilmen Phil Boyum and Will Britt said the unwritten rule has been in place for several years.
“There was never intent in doing anything wrong,” Britt said. “There are several examples throughout the years where someone has been worked with on this kind of thing.”
Said Mayor Joe Brannen: “We are just trying to do what we can to assist customers but still receive the money we’re owed.”
Leaphart, in the wake of the South Georgia Realty case becoming public, was asked by Brannen to conduct an investigation of the clerk’s office.
The investigation was conducted, in part, because Sterling Starling, part share-holder for South Georgia Realty, is an employee of the city and son of City Clerk Sue Starling.
Leaphart said he doesn’t believe the connections played any part in South Georgia Realty being afforded payment flexibility.
Also, in the report provided to the Herald, Leaphart noted that at least two other businesses have been provided leniency with their bills in recent years — Varsity Apartments and Eagles Landing Apartments.
In Varsity Apartments’ case, the city ultimately issued a utility lien to recoup owed money.
“If necessary, the city can always secure debts by filing utility liens against a property,” Leaphart said.
South Georgia Realty paid off its outstanding debt when Parker, the city manager, and City Council became aware of the balance.
“With 16,000 utility accounts in the city, this kind of thing happens,” Parker said. “When these complexes get a little behind, you don’t want to cut off several people and leave them with no water at all. We know we will collect.”
In response to the attention garnered by the South Georgia Realty, Leaphart said he and other city officials are drafting a new ordinance that will allow for the flexibility of payment plans.
The current ordinance does allow the city manager to work out a payment plan, but only up to 90 days.
Leaphart said the ordinance would “grant the billing clerk the clear authority to make adjustments and have discretion to deal with these circumstances.”
And any plan involving a city employee or someone with close ties to an employee would have to be disclosed to the mayor or council.
“This is the first time we’ve had to take a good hard look at it. Clearly, we need to have a good, clear policy,” Leaphart said. “We are going to take these practices that have evolved through time and redraft the ordinance to include them and establish clearer regulations.”
Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.