Residents in Bayou la Batre will begin paying their garbage service fees at a new location this month, the result of an ongoing feud between the city and its Utilities Board.
In May, the Utilities Board voted 3-2 to stop receiving payments for garbage services on behalf of the city, which it had done since 2007 because it was already billing residents for water services. The arrangement prevented the city from having to purchase costly receiving software, but after the board’s relationship with the City Council and Mayor Brett Dungan deteriorated, the responsibility of collecting those fees was returned to City Hall.
With the exception of a new late fee added to bills that remain unpaid after the 15th of each month, the garbage rates for Bayou la Batre residents will remain the same.
Dungan said the city has no desire to levy late fees but needs a way to encourage residents to pay their bill on time.
He added “the Utilities Board had the ability to turn off people’s water,” because the bill for garbage services was included on each resident’s monthly water bill.
However, Board President Sylvia Raley disagreed, adding the Utilities Board never ran into “that situation.”
“There were a lot of assumptions made,” Raley said. “You can’t cut off a utility if someone pays for one service but doesn’t pay for the other one.”
As for the difference in the prorated rates, Dungan said they were always suppose to be half of the standard garbage collection rate.
“That was one of the things in the original garbage ordinance the city passed,” he said. “When the general rates were raised a few years back from $16 to $18, the prorated rate should have gone up from $8 to $9, but for whatever reason, it didn’t.”
Dungan said the penalties and additional income will also help offset the city’s cost of collecting its own garbage fees, which is mainly caused by the extra personnel time needed to collect and process the payments.
The billing is currently being processed using Microsoft Excel – a format Dungan said only cost $500 to set up.
“So far it’s costing the city $1,200 a month in extra man hours because of an introduction that was totally unnecessary,” Dungan said. “It’s a manual job to process the fees, and if we had a software program, we could possibly do away with a lot of those man hours.”
When asked about purchasing collection software, Dungan said the $8,000 needed wasn’t attainable for a city with a “budgetary crisis in every department.”
Despite those concerns, some residents are still saying a late fee that is 138 percent of the original charge is too extreme.
Virginia Shanahan, executive director of the Bayou la Batre Housing Authority, said several residents of Safe Harbor subdivision have complained to her about the increased ‘low-income’ fee and the $25 late fee.
“This is median income in this area isn’t very high,” she said. “If the residents had other options available to them for garbage service, that’d be one thing. However, if they’re not being permitted an opportunity to get another service, then we have a monopoly that’s being excessive in their fee.”
In the new garbage ordinance, which was passed by the council June 26, accepted payment options were also discussed to dismay of residents in attendance.
Those paying in person at Bayou la Batre City Hall will not be allowed to pay with a personal check. At this time the clerk’s office will only accept cash, money orders and certified checks in person.
An assistant to the city clerk said the price for sending a single notification of a “bad check” costs city $6, which is half of funds already lost by worthless check for garbage services.
However, the council did say residents are able to pay in advance quarterly or yearly. The city is also accepting credit, debit and Pay Pal payments through its website beginning July 7.
Despite the concerns, Dungan said he’s hopeful the city won’t have to worry about its fee structure for long anyway.
In addition to sending a personal letter requesting the utilities board resume the collection of garbage fees, the Mayor is confident the board’s decision will be overturned by a pending court case.
“The city’s position is that the vote taken by Utilities Board was not ‘3-2’ as reported, but rather ‘2-2’ due to a board member whose term has expired that illegally cast the third vote (sic),” he said in a message to Lagniappe.
Dungan was referring to utilities board member Louis Hard. According to Council records, Hard’s final term on the board should have expired in April.
The board later refused to accept those terms – filing for an injunction in the circuit court of Mobile County and refusing to acknowledge the city’s appointment to the position.
“We’re very confident this will be overturned,” Dungan said. “Why would we want to continue a $1,200-a-month expense, when it can be handled by the Utilities Board in two hours?’”