Bay man scolds council about past-due bills
By Dwayne Bremer
Apr 11, 2014, 21:58
The city of Bay St. Louis has a 97 percent utility collection rate, officials say, but at least one city resident says that isn't good enough.
Ron Thorpe, a member of the Hancock County Alliance for Good Government, on Tuesday appeared before the city council and offered an aggressive presentation with props such as a large garbage bag filled with paper and 135 water bottles arranged on a table.
The garbage bag, he said, represented $400,000 in uncollected utility bills. The 135 water bottles represented how many utility customers are more than 60 days past due, he said.
Councilmen and the audience sat in stunned silence during the presentation. At one point, Thorpe held the garbage bag above his head, shook it, and then threw it toward the council podium.
Thorpe called city leaders "inept" and accused them of allowing some people and businesses to get by on late bills in return for votes.
"This is money which has been flushed down the toilet," Thorpe said. "Our city leaders have not been strong enough to take charge. They have placed the burden on the tax payers. When you are spending the city's money, you are spending my money."
Council members were quick to defend themselves and the city administration, saying collection rates are good and the numbers are inflated for several reasons.
Ward One Councilman Doug Seal said a significant amount of the $400,000 may never be collected.
He pointed to the large number of people who moved away after Hurricane Katrina and never returned as an example of "uncollectible" money.
"We cannot just write off past debt," Seal said. "We have to keep these accounts on the books by law."
Mayor Les Fillingame said just because someone is past-due does not mean he or she is not paying bills and that the city's overall collection rate is "excellent."
The city has more than 2,700 utility customers, meaning the city collects 97 percent of its outstanding bills, he said.
The figures do not include some customers in Wards Five and Six, officials said.
Fillingame asked Thorpe if he knew what the collection rates were in Waveland and other surrounding communities. Thorpe did not answer.
"I think we have one of the highest collection rates ever in Bay St. Louis," Fillingame said. "97 percent collections for a municipal system is very good. People come across hard times and we make arrangements. If they do not keep the arrangements, then we cut them off. Our residents deserve all of the respect we can give them when they get in a bind. There are some businesses who are struggling, but they always catch up."
Thorpe said that he understood there are always going to be some special circumstances, but there is little excuse for businesses.
He pointed to an outstanding $30,000 water bill owed by Hancock Medical Center, and delinquent bills for nine Old Town merchants as examples.
"These businesses receive much assistance from the city, but they cannot even pay their water bill," he said. "
Ward Six Councilman Lonnie Falgout said he is not as worried about residents, as he is businesses.
He said the city has taken strides to address the delinquencies and he hopes it will continue to do so.
"Mike Favre and I have been on the council for about 10 months and this is the third time we have discussed utility bills," Falgout said. "Our sales taxes are down, so we need every bit of revenue we can collect. There are some businesses who are behind and I assure you that we will go after them."
Seal also said he believes the city is doing a better job in collecting.
"It frustrates me when people do not pay their bills," Seal said. "I would like to collect every penny, but 135 customers out of 2,700 is not bad. I think the city has been doing better."
Fillingame said the city has been in on-going discussions with HMC about its bill and will also be cracking down on delinquent businesses.