City writes off unpaid bills

Lawrence records high number of deadbeat utility customers

The city is letting more deadbeat utility customers off the hook for unpaid bills, a reality that’s putting a dent in city coffers.

The amount of unpaid water, sewer and utility bills in Lawrence skyrocketed by 60 percent in 2001, city officials said last week. And Lawrence city commissioners have agreed to write off the $113,136 in uncollected bills, figuring the city probably never would see the money.

But Finance Director Ed Mullins said his department would become more aggressive in chasing down the deadbeats.

“We had actually been on a downward trend, and it popped back up this year,” Mullins said. The latest loss was up nearly 57 percent from the $72,026 written off a year earlier.

Nearly 900 residents never paid a final bill in 2001, Mullins said, up from an average of 600 in previous years.

“We don’t know if it’s a trend,” said City Manager Mike Wildgen, “or a one-year situation.”

The biggest offender, according city records: Phi Kappa Theta fraternity, which officials said left behind a $2,113 utility bill in 2001 when it sold its house at 1941 Stewart Ave.

Scott Hill, an alumni member of Phi Kappa Theta’s board, said his records showed the city had been paid.

“I think they’re wrong,” he said.

Even if the bill wasn’t paid, Phi Kappa Theta wasn’t hard to find, Hill said. The fraternity moved to the former Delta Tau Delta house at 1111 W. 11th St.

“We certainly haven’t received any notices for a long time,” Hill said. “And we haven’t gone into hiding. We’re pretty easy to find. If they were trying to get the water, sewer and sanitation bill paid, they didn’t do a very good job.”

Mullins said Wednesday he would double-check Phi Kappa Theta’s billing. He said the fraternity might have been hard to find if the water service at its new house had been registered in a different name.

This month’s utility bill gives Lawrence customers a chance to pay online.Customers will receive a PIN number with the billing statement. That PIN will allow them to access their accounts at will be able to review past payments, daily usage, billing dates and other information.

Deposit decisions

Mullins was hard-pressed to explain the increase in unpaid bills. But the problem may have been compounded, he said, by a decision in 2001 not to turn off water service until a resident accumulated $100 in unpaid bills above the amount of the security deposit.

“If you had a $50 deposit, we waited until it reached $150 in unpaid service before we turned it off,” Mullins said.

The reason: Too many residents weren’t paying their utility bills.

“We were just spending too much time turning people off,” he said. “We were turning 200, 300 off per week.”

Mullins said because of the increase, his department would take quicker action to terminate service for unpaid bills. He has proposed increasing the security deposit for water service from a base rate of $40 — higher, if your water has been turned off previously for an unpaid bill — to $100.

Even with the increase, he said, the unpaid bills amount to only 3 percent of the city’s utility revenues. The bottom line isn’t in danger, he said.

“We do expect that,” Mullins said. “It’s anticipated. In terms of revenue, the water and sewer fund, it’s still a healthy fund.”

Address unknown

Mullins said many of the unpaid bills came from residents who left town without terminating their service. Indeed, most of the names on the list seen by the Journal-World no longer are listed in the Lawrence phone book.

When an account becomes delinquent, the customer’s name is turned over to a collection agency, Mullins said. That costs the customer an additional $15 if they’re found. The city also sends the names of delinquent customers to the state; if the Department of Revenue owes that person money, the city gets its share first.

Wildgen said Lawrence wasn’t exceptional in the amount of unpaid bills.

“I don’t think any utility gets 100 percent of its bills paid,” Wildgen said. “But we take the proper action to get the bills paid.”