City holds off on hiring collection agency

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Jackson city leaders have backed off on a plan to bring on a private firm to help collect on unpaid water bills.

The main reason is because there are currently still too many people not receiving water bills.

“We have 15,000 stranded accounts. People have not been billed, are receiving inaccurate bills or the like,” said Jackson Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine. “Before we can enforce collections, we need to make sure bills are accurate and going out in a timely fashion.

“It’s unfair to penalize people if they’re bills are inaccurate or not timely.”

Jackson has approximately 65,000 water and sewer customers. Billing has been a problem for years, ever since the city began updating its water billing system as part of a contract with Siemens. 

Last year, the city issued a request for proposals from private firms to aid in collecting unpaid water, sewer and garbage bills, court fines and citations, license and permit fees and returned checks.

Twelve firms submitted proposals, and former Mayor Tony Yarber asked the city council to bring on Contract Callers, Inc., and Linebarger Goggan Blair and Sampson, at its April 18 meeting.

By then, the scope of the contracts had been scaled back to include only municipal court collections, Ward Two Councilman Melvin Priester said.

The proposal came late in the Yarber administration, and the council referred the item to its finance committee. Since then, the item has not been brought up for a vote.

Priester reached out to Blaine and Jackson Chief Financial Officer Charles Hatcher about the Linebarger proposal after receiving an inquiry from the firm.

In his e-mail, the councilman said the city could likely “fast-track” bringing on the concern, but had some concerns about whether the firms’ previous proposals included enough protections for residents.

Linebarger has been cited numerous times for its collection practices. In 2015, CNNMoney reported that the Austin, Texas-based firm had sent out threatening letters to customers, including warning letters saying warrants had been issued for their arrests. Numerous other complaints against the company are also listed on the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Web site.

The same site showed no complaints had been filed against Contract Callers, which is based in Augusta, Ga.

“Once you let these firms loose on people, I fear that without proper oversight, internal control, and organization on our end (especially Municipal Court record keeping), people will start getting threatening calls to pay tickets that have been paid or were remanded to file,” Priester said.

 

The councilman also said it’s important to protect people who are unable to pay their fines. “You can’t squeeze water from a stone,” he said. “If you have to choose between paying a ticket and paying rent and keeping the lights on, you’re not going to pay the ticket.”

As for water billing, Blaine said the city hopes to begin addressing problems in the next 60 days. “The short-term plan is making sure all the bills that are supposed to be sent get sent out,” he said. “The medium and long-range plan is to reorganize the department so manpower is in the right places.

“We want to make sure our house is in order first … Then we can start talking about (putting in) processes that ensure everyone pays their fair share.” 

 

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The Jackson Academy Association (JAA) will host A Blue and White Night at the Country Club of Jackson on Saturday, August 11.