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New Kensington still plagued by unpaid garbage bills

| Tuesday, March 11, 2008

City officials still are weighing their options for pursuing more than $200,000 in delinquent garbage bills.

Controller John Zavadak said the amount owed fluctuates slightly as some bills are paid and others become overdue, but the amount owed remained at about $219,000 as of late February.

"That number hasn't really changed," he said.

Zavadak said the collection process will improve now that he is receiving current reports from the city's municipal authority, which bills for garbage and sanitary service as well as for water distribution.

"It's never going to get any worse," Zavadak said of the delinquency.

The high delinquency rate came to light a year ago when the authority was overhauling its billing and record-keeping system.

Authority Board Chairman Ron Zampogna, who addressed council on Monday, said a new computer system is up and running. He said the authority had difficulties with the new software and its provider, which led to a year-long delay in implementing the changes.

Zampogna said collecting delinquent garbage bills will be much harder than collecting overdue water and sewerage fees.

While the water and sewerage authorities can shut off water service to those not paying their bills, they can't shut off water because people don't pay garbage bills. And the city can't stop picking up trash because it's a public health issue.

"The door was pretty much slammed on us," said Mayor Frank Link of the city's attempts to find a way to force customers to pay garbage bills.

"Your hands are tied," Zampogna said. "You're in the worst shape of the three bodies (city, municipal authority and sanitary authority)."

Link said officials are weeding through the overdue bills to determine who owes the most and for how long they've owed the money. Then the city will go after some of the delinquents, either through property liens or by taking them before a district judge, he said.

Link acknowledged that some of the money never will be collected, either because individuals don't owe enough to make it cost-effective for the city to pursue it or because the bills are too long overdue.

Solicitor James Kopelman said tax liens are an option for bills overdue three years or less; legal action is available for money overdue up to four years.

Zavadak told Zampogna that he'd like the authority to change the billing procedure for rental properties. Zavadak said one of the biggest problems is transient residents who live briefly at a rental property and move without paying.

He said landlords can only be held responsible for 90 days worth of unpaid services.

Zampogna said the authority is considering policy changes as well as improvements.

He said the authority is looking into paperless billing and new meters that can be read remotely by computer. He said the meters would replace equipment that in some cases is decades old and would speed the billing process.

He said the new meters could also allow the authority to begin billing monthly rather than quarterly. That could be a boon for customers who might find it easier to budget for smaller monthly bills rather than a larger quarterly one.

Other improvements under consideration include replacing a 16-inch transmission line under Constitution Boulevard and two transmission lines under Seventh Street. Zampogna said the Constitution project could top $1 million.

He said the authority is in much better financial and management shape now than it was a few years ago.

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