New aldermen question Wright City billing practices

By: 
Adam Rollins
Staff Writer

In their second public hearing as aldermen, two Wright City board members initiated a long discussion of how the city handles past-due utility bills.

It is Wright City’s practice for any request for a payment agreement or forgiveness of debt on late bill payments to come before the board of aldermen. In recent months, that has included writing off tens-of-thousands of dollars in old bills and late fees that city administrators now considers “uncollectible.”

$18,000 in such write-offs were presented to the board of aldermen June 25.

New Ward Two Alderman Ramiz Hakim said he wants more information about what steps have been taken to collect those bills.

“It appears to me that those who are leaving Wright City, and moving elsewhere ... are then putting us in a position where it’s not collectible, and we’re writing that off,” Hakim commented. He said the city shouldn’t let such people off out of paying when citizens who stay in Wright City are being required to pay their bills and late fees.

City administrators responded that every possible step had been taken to collect these bills, some of which go back more than 10 years and predate Wright City’s sale of its water and sewer utilities. The city currently only bills for trash service.

Ward Two Alderman Nathan Rohr, a former public works employee, added that many of the names on the uncollected bills are actually people who still live in town, but went trough foreclosures on the homes being billed.

Hakim also took issue with the fact that some of the bills in question had been allowed to accrue debt and late fees for long stretches of time before being shut off. He said city staff should be empowered to take quicker action in such cases, including handling payment agreements and shutoffs themselves.

“If we came up with a consistent rule on this stuff ... we could just empower our staff to say, ‘This is the way we take care of this stuff, and if you want any exceptions to this procedure, you have to show up in-person to a board meeting,’” Hakim commented.

City Administrator Jim Schuchmann said city staff have been implementing tighter procedures to prevent late payments from going unaddressed, but that the city’s financial records are best served now by getting bad debt off the books with write-offs.

“This is debt we cannot collect. It’s legally impossible,” Schuchmann said. “What we can’t collect, unfortunately, (is) because of past errors, past decisions ... or people’s foreclosure, where they had to file bankruptcy. We don’t get our money when they file bankruptcy.”

New Ward One Alderman Michelle Heiliger commented that a recent report showed Wright City had already written off $120,000 in bad debt in 2019. She said she wants city staff to create a full accounting of uncollectible bills, rather than bringing them to the board piecemeal.

“What is the total number? What is the dollars of debt that we’re looking at? ... How many more times are we going to have this conversation?” Heiliger asked.

At the urging of Heiliger and Hakim, the board tabled action on any debt write-offs until aldermen can have a more thorough discussion about city policies surrounding bill collection. The topic is likely to arise again at the aldermen’s next meeting July 9.

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