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Charleroi woman gets bargain - with a catch

| Friday, Jan. 8, 2010

ELLSWORTH - A Charleroi woman jailed for repeatedly failing to pay a borough fee received a bargain Thursday, but it came with a catch - make the monthly payments or face the consequences.

Magisterial District Judge Curtis Thompson consolidated penalties and fines originally assessed against Darlene Pennline by Charleroi-based justice Larry Hopkins.

Thompson's actions lowered Pennline's total cost from $1,267.69 to $541.69. He ordered the woman to make monthly payments of $25, due the 25th of each month.

"If for any reason you are going to be late, I expect a phone call," Thompson told her. "If you are late with a payment and I do not receive a call, a warrant will be issued and you will be brought in here forthwith."

Pennline had been jailed for one day last month after she failed to follow a payment schedule set up by Hopkins and then failed to respond to communications from his office.

At issue is the storm water separation fee assessed each Charleroi property owner. Separate from the sewage bill, the storm separation fee was enacted by borough council in August 2006 to pay the loan payments on a $7.9 million loan that financed a storm water separation project in the borough.

Borough residents are assessed the fee quarterly. For residential homes, the fee is $15.50 per month or $46.50 per quarter. The fee has been assessed 12 times since it was enacted, beginning in the fourth quarter of 2006.

According to borough records, Pennline has paid the fee on time just once, in the first quarter of this year.

She was cited for failure to pay the fee in the fourth quarter of 2006 and all four quarters of 2007 and 2008, according to Michelle Mackey, Charleroi's code enforcement officer. Pennline has since paid the delinquent 2007 fees.

The citations in question Thursday were for failure to pay the fee in three quarters of 2008.

Hopkins sentenced Pennline to jail Dec. 15, after she failed to heed several court orders to pay the fee.

Judge Paul Pozonsky issued an order the following day freeing Pennline.

President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca issued an order vacating Pozonsky's order and scheduled the payment-determination hearing that was held Thursday before Thompson.

In her order, O'Dell Seneca noted Pennline failed to respond to citations, twice failed to make monthly payments after agreeing to do so and even failed to respond to one mailing warning of her impending arrest for failure to respond.

O'Dell Seneca said Hopkins acted in accordance with the law.

Pennline's attorney, Matthew Keranko, asked Thompson to dismiss the case, claiming his client had not been afforded the right to have legal counsel. He said although the unpaid fees were a civil matter, she faced potential jail time.

But Thompson said he was ordered by O'Dell Seneca to conduct a hearing solely to determine how much Pennline could pay.

Thompson consolidated penalties, fines and court cases, noting that, while she was cited for failure to pay the borough fee in three separate quarters of 2008, the citations were all filed on the same day. He gave Pennline $40 credit for the day she spent in jail.

Charleroi Council President Mark Alterici attended the hearing. Asked about the judge's ruling, he said, "We have no problem with it. We never wanted anyone in jail. We just want everyone to pay their fair share."

That appears to be occurring with more frequency, according to borough records.

For the fourth quarter of 2006 - the first time the bills went out - the borough cited 206 for nonpayment. That number dropped to 181 in the first quarter of 2007 and 124 on average for the rest of the year. By the end of 2008, just 82 were cited for nonpayment.

But Keranko vowed to continue fighting the ordinance. During the hearing, he said Pennline and other Charleroi residents "fell victim to this ordinance."

While Keranko praised Thompson's order, he said an appeal is possible.

"We're going to fight this - scaring them into paying a debt," Keranko said. ""Someone has to stand up for the people of Charleroi. "It's not over yet. We're going to fight this."

Pennline, though, said she did not pay the bills on time as a form of protest. She said it was due to lack of money, noting she recently lost her home in a sheriff's sale over taxes.

"When I think about it, it's hard to believe I spent the day in jail," Pennline said. "I don't understand why everyone in town is subjected to this (fee.) I just think it's terrible that the people are subjected to this."

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