Thursday, February 23, 2012
CONYERS -- Collection of bad debt was called into question by the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners as the county's stormwater fund presented a $2.2 million 2012 budget that carries a significant amount of uncollected billing.
The proposed 2012 stormwater budget is up from last year by $180,151, with revenue matching expenditures. Last year, the stormwater utility took in $2.025 million but spent only $1.037 million. The proposed budget was presented during the BOC work session Tuesday. The commissioners will vote on the first reading of the budget at their next meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28.
Dan Rothwell, Rockdale County's stormwater engineer, said his office is seeking to hire a three-person work crew just for stormwater projects. He explained having the added personnel would make the stormwater utility more efficient because it will not have to depend on contracted work crews from the county's Department of Transportation.
"Since they are down to one maintenance crew now their priorities are with the Department of Transportation," Rothwell said. "I understand that completely, but we are acquiring a surplus in our maintenance log that we feel we need to attend to."
Rothwell said if approved, the new crew can work on small and medium-sized stormwater projects the whole year rather than with contracted work crews, who will work for about seven months as funding allows.
He said the in-house stormwater crew could also be available to the county for emergencies such as weather events where the crew can help clear debris from roads.
The request translates to a $411,827 increase in stormwater's personal services and benefits expenditures from 2011.
The budget also includes $250,000 for work on the stormwater utility's master plan. That expenditure along with $400,000 in contracted projects prompted the commissioners to ask about revenue.
Asked by Commissioner JaNice Van Ness about collecting unpaid stormwater bills, which account for 19 percent of expenditures, the third largest behind salaries and professional services, Rothwell said "We're working on that."
"Here's my point. I don't know how we're going to pay $250,000 for a master plan when we can't even get our finances in order yet," Van Ness said.
Rothwell said his office was considering using a collection agency and pursuing collections through the county's Magistrate Court.
Commissioner Oz Nesbitt said this was discussed last year with an awareness campaign to explain to residents the importance and purpose of the stormwater utility. He noted the county's previous community affairs director was brought into discussions, but nothing was done.
"There's such a different attitude out there about paying that fee," Nesbitt said. "We were hoping for that particular group that some strategic plan would be put in place or major suggestion to us and the citizens with some type of campaign to collect some of those funds that are lingering out there because folks are not paying their stormwater fee, which has a big impact on what we're here talking about."
Rothwell said the stormwater advisory committee last year recommended using a collection agency "as the least difficult thing to do for a staff of six." Using the Magistrate Court would require hiring a person to keep track of that, he said.
"The majority of people are paying and we have about 8.5 percent who we are not collecting, and like RWR we're running somewhere between $300,000 and $350,000 that we're not collecting." Rothwell said. He said there are 160 entities that represent more than $700,000 in total uncollected funds.
Rothwell said his office has begun sending out reminder letters to past due accounts and that he would prefer hiring a collection agency.
Rockdale County Commission Chairman Richard Oden said using a collection agency was not his preferred method of collecting. He there is no force behind the current billing system that would punish those who do not pay.
Oden noted other counties collect a higher percentage of stormwater fees by putting them on the county's property tax bill. Rothwell noted the city of Conyers collects its stormwater fees on its property tax bills.
"We have not been successful in convincing the tax commissioner to put this on the tax bill," Oden said.
Last year, Rockdale County Tax Commissioner Dan Ray declined to add stormwater fees to the tax bills. He said then the issue is a "forced-collection problem" and not a billing problem. He believed then his office would not have much better luck collecting stormwater fees than what was being done by the utility's efforts.
Ray advised the BOC that if they wanted to put stormwater fees on property tax bills, that the county needed to pursue state legislation to allow counties to use tax liens to collect stormwater fees.