Penn Hills residents continue battling sewer-bill collections
By Patrick Varine
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Faith Roberts wasn't about to pay the same bill twice.
Roberts is among roughly 700 Penn Hills residents who received collection letters for past-due sewer bills from Portnoff Law Associates, a Norristown, Pa.-based collection agency contracted by the municipality.
Portnoff is collecting unpaid bills from the Central Tax Bureau or Centax, which handled billing for Penn Hills until mid-2008, when the municipality terminated the relationship in favor of one with the local water authorities.
Roberts has access to the last seven years of her financial records, including a cancelled check from June 2008 — which followed the second quarter of that year's billing cycle, the same cycle referenced in collection letters sent to 375 residents, according to Portnoff — for $131.99.
However, the letter Roberts received from Portnoff says she owes $159.87, not including the roughly $160 in fees and penalties that was tacked on.
Roberts said her water bills have always been relatively consistent, and she doesn't understand where the additional $28 came from.
“I can print (cancelled checks) out from 2007 leading up to the changeover (from Central Tax Bureau to the local water authorities), and I can show that they never vary widely, because I always paid on time,” Roberts said.
Roberts sent Portnoff officials a copy of the cancelled check on Aug. 13, but said that when she called Portnoff in mid-September, she was told it had not yet been reviewed.
Portnoff Law Associates Owner Michelle Portnoff said her office does not comment on individual account information, but added they have reviewed 15 cancelled checks sent by property owners “and have not found any that correspond to (the second quarter of 2008).”
She advised that residents with questions call Portnoff “so that their matter will be reviewed based on the available data rather than create hearsay confusion.”
Confusion, however, seems to pop up frequently when it comes to several aspects of the move from Centax to the water authorities and the subsequent collections taking place.
Portnoff said bills for the second quarter of 2008 were not issued by Central Tax Bureau until July 2008.
“This was the usual billing cycle for Centax and the time lag between service and billing was one of the reasons the municipality terminated its agreement with Centax and hired Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority,” she said.
If that is the case, then Roberts never received the final Centax bill, she said.
Her June 2008 payment was the last check she addressed to Centax; all of her payments afterward were sent to the Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority.
Some other residents also have said they either paid their bill already or never received it in the first place. Ann Mayhew of Penn Hills was told she owed more than $460 over two 2008 billing periods, a figure that jumped to more than $740 after the fees and interest. Mayhew wrote the municipality on Aug. 29 requesting copies of bills and notices associated with both billing periods.
She received two copies of Central Tax Bureau billing registers, from April and July 2008, showing the balance on her account along with rates, usage, interest and other items. The April register includes $10.01 in penalties/interest. In the August register, Mayhew's balance carries over from the previous cycle, but the interest disappears.
Moreover, both registers also contain billing information for nine other random Penn Hills properties. The copies Mayhew received show that municipal officials attempted, unsuccessfully, to redact the names by blacking them out, but they are all clearly readable. Utility information is considered public record, according to attorneys in the state's Office of Open Records.
Both Mayhew and Roberts pointed out yet another discrepancy: unpaid utility bills generally result in a quick cutoff of the utility in question.
“In Penn Hills, if you don't pay your water bill, they shut your water off like that,” Mayhew said, snapping her fingers. “So how can all these people have unpaid bills and still have service?”
Portnoff said the water authority “was uninterested in collecting the sewer debt owed to Penn Hills prior to its engagement, by shutting off services or otherwise.”
Mayhew, who said she paid the two bills Portnoff is attempting to collect on and is seeking reimbursement of the interest and penalties, is in a position similar to many affected residents.
“I don't keep utility bills going back that far, and right around the same time (the changeover from Central Tax was happening), my bank, National City, was acquired by PNC, and the old National City records were not kept,” she said.
“I have no way to prove I paid those bills.”
Deputy Mayor Sara Kuhn, who has addressed the billing issue at recent council meetings, said she is confident the overdue bills are valid, but would like to see some concessions made regarding late fees and penalties.
“I've talked numerous times with Portnoff and also with our finance director,” Kuhn said. “They've given me proof that the bills haven't been paid … But I think we need to do something about the interest and penalties because of the fact that it took five years for this to come out.
“That's the only issue I'm addressing right now. I'm not addressing the initial cost of the bill, because I believe people should pay their sewer bills.”
Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or email@example.com.
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