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Delinquent trash fee firm wants to extend contract

| Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011

MONESSEN — Council met Tuesday with representatives from the firm that has been handling delinquent refuse accounts.

In 2005, council hired Portnoff Law Associates, of Norristown, to collect money from past-due bills.

Last month, council sent Portnoff a termination letter.

"They decided they wanted to come and talk to us," Mayor Mary Jo Smith said at the work session. "They did request the meeting. We didn't."

Smith said that according to the city's three-year contract, Portnoff would automatically receive a new contract if council did not send a termination letter to the firm before year's end.

"We want to explore other options," the mayor said. "We have not determined we are going to sever our ties with Portnoff. They've done a lot ... but if we didn't give them the notice, then we didn't have enough time to find somebody else."

Smith said many homeowners have ignored warnings about delinquent accounts, and the fees just keep mounting.

"It's not Portnoff's fault, it's the people's fault," Smith said. "But we have so many people that can't afford to pay it. But, what they don't understand is, if they don't answer to Portnoff, the fees are added on."

During a work session, Attorney Michelle R. Portnoff and two of her employees met with council.

Portnoff said her firm wants to improve communication with city officials and provide more help for residents with financial hardships.

"Our goal is always to get people to pay their bills and not the legal fees," Portnoff said. "You want to get people to get into the habit of knowing that these bills need to be paid and to take pride in the fact that they're supporting their community by paying the fees to get the services."

Portnoff said few residents with delinquent bills have filed financial hardship applications with her office.

She said her firm wants to send representatives to Monessen several times a year to help residents complete the forms.

"We frequently waive our fees where we see there is a hardship, and we would be happy to formalize that into something more structured," she said.

Smith said city employees have had difficulty tracking payments and delinquent accounts.

"If we sent the bill to the tenant and they paid but the landlord didn't, there could be double billing," the mayor said. "The county couldn't give us that info, either. They gave us a ton of information, but it wouldn't match up to our program.

"Instead of us all having the same type of system, everybody has a different system that is not compatible with the other one."

Portnoff said she would have her employees make the city's computer files compatible.

"You have to factor that in and see if they can work this out and help to get our records straight," Smith said. "That's a plus. But why didn't they offer this before?"

Portnoff said she would like to do more.

"I would hope that if our contract is renewed that on a more regular basis we would come out," she said.

Smith said Portnoff charges the city $35 per delinquent account it attempts to collect.

The money is returned to the city if delinquent fees are collected.

Smith said council would like to avoid the $35 fee.

"We figured we'll send them the notice of termination and see if we don't have to put up the money up front," Smith said. "Every penny, now, we need in our budget to work with."

For 2011, there are 228 delinquent accounts, 188 of which are "collectable," Smith said.

"You have to factor in how many of them were in bankruptcy and how many of them were up for sheriff's sale. Those are issues," she said. "A lot of the houses we were trying to collect from, they have abandoned them, and we've demoed a lot of them."

Garbage bills are due at the beginning of each year.

If paid before Jan. 31, it is $155. If paid before Feb. 28, it is $175. The fee goes up to $195 if not paid by the end of February.

Here are Portnoff's per year collection on delinquent accounts, as of Sept. 30:

• $95,839 of $104,077 due in 2005.

• $29,120 of $31,338 in 2006.

• $20,584 of $28,681 in 2007.

• $18,906 of $30,680 in 2008.

• $17,069 of $29,229 in 2009.

• $12,932 of $33,185 in 2010.

Smith said many of the accounts have been delinquent for more than one year.

She said delinquent notices are mailed in October each year.

Portnoff said fees tacked on to delinquent accounts would be "frozen" once homeowners with financial hardships contact her firm.

She said payment plans can be arranged.

Portnoff can be called at (484) 690-9320, or toll free at (800) 561-7989.

In other matters, Solicitor Mark Shire said he is preparing two ordinances related to garbage bulls.

One would eliminate pro-rating of garbage bill payments.

The other would make property owners responsible for garbage bills, whether or not their properties are occupied.

City Administrator John Harhai said it cost $5,000 to have the Viaduct Bridge on Reed Avenue inspected.

Smith said the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation "strongly suggested" that council have the span inspected to determine if it was weakened by vibrations from the Aug. 23 earthquake.

It is the only city-owned bridge.

It was inspected Thursday and the results are not yet available, Smith said.

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