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Nearly 700 Penn Hills residents receive years-old sewer bills

| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Hundreds of Penn Hills residents received five-year-old sewer bills from the municipality's collection agency this summer, demanding payment, penalties and other fees.

Portnoff Law Associates sent 696 residents letters printed on Penn Hills letterhead, stating that bills from quarterly periods dating back to 2007 and 2008 weren't paid and are due.

Deputy Mayor Sara Kuhn expressed concern at council's Aug. 19 meeting. “This was handled, in my opinion, very badly,” Kuhn said.

“By having it on Penn Hills letterhead, our staff has had to deal with phone calls on this issue, when it is really something we had nothing to do with.”

Municipal Manager Moe Rayan said sending out collection letters on municipal letterhead was an attempt to make them seem less harsh than typical collection agency messages. He said municipal officials are investigating concerns about the collections.

Resident Heather Hoolahan — who received a bill for $150.84 in 2008 sewer fees, plus $127.85 in penalties and other fees — said she doesn't understand why Penn Hills homeowners are just now finding out about the bills.

“If there were past-due sewer fees then, it would have been easy to roll over,” she said.

Penn Hills ended its relationship with previous billing company Central Tax Bureau, or Centax, five years ago, and local water authorities took over billing. The municipality notified residents in a June 20, 2008, letter that starting July 1, 2008, the Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority would begin sending out combined water and sewage bills.

Portnoff Law Associates President Michelle Portnoff said information her company received from Centax “was in complete disarray.” She said her firm was contracted by the municipality in 2008 to collect past-due amounts, but didn't start making collections until 2010.

“There were many, many delinquent accounts,” she said. “Penn Hills instructed us to get started with the high-balance accounts.”

So far, Portnoff said, more than $500,000 has been collected, with roughly another $200,000 outstanding.

Hoolahan said the municipality's dealings with Centax, which was placed into receivership in 2012, make her suspicious, and she'd like to know why residents are just finding out about bills from five years ago.

“When (Centax) audited their books, why didn't they notify the water authorities that there were unpaid sewer bills?” she asked. “Why wasn't there any kind of advertisement in five years that there were outstanding Central Tax bills that needed collected? Why wasn't there any kind of press release when this debt was handed off to Portnoff?”

She was particularly irked by the additional fees. “You've never in five years told me that I owe this money, and now you want to charge me $127.85 (in fees) for a bill you never notified me that I had?” she asked.

Portnoff said she believes the original bills were sent. “Despite Centax not maintaining their records that well, I'm sure their bills were going out like clockwork,” she said.

“Obviously, the ideal situation is for people to pay their bills on time. No one wants to be in a position where they owe money. But it is what it is.”

Portnoff said she hopes residents will call the collection agency to work out payment plans.

Hoolahan said she has doubts about the bills. “We terminated our contract (with Centax) because they were terrible,” she said. “They had awful records, they were completely disjointed. So how can I even trust this?”

Kuhn was concerned about how much time had passed. “I'm being asked (by residents) why it took five years, but I don't have an answer,” she said.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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