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Saluda reports 4,638 in inactive, delinquent utility bills

The City of Saluda responded to questions of delinquent utility bills this week with a billing report detailing 31 inactive accounts worth $4,638 the city is trying to collect.

The report also includes 23 customers with delinquent active accounts from the July billing cycle, totaling $2,209. Saluda City Clerk Monica Pace said all customers have been mailed notices of disconnection and service will be discontinued on Aug. 19 if the past due charges are not paid in full.

Saluda Commissioners met Monday, Aug. 12 and heard the utility billing report after Mayor Fred Baisden said resident Karen Bultman asked for information on water bills.

Baisden said Saluda looked at their delinquent bills a few months ago and discovered there was $23,000 in past due amounts. Baisden said per state statute, the city is only allowed to go back and collect the last three years on water bills and four years on sewer bills. The city purged the bills that it was no longer able to collect.

Pace said the city purged $17,555 from 58 accounts because the expired period of collections has passed, according to state law. Pace also said in the month of July, the city disconnected five meters because of nonpayment for June billing, with four of those accounts paid in full and reconnected.

“One account is still delinquent and the meter has been removed to ensure there is no usage,” Pace said. “The health department has been informed that someone is residing in a home with no running water.”

Pace also said all delinquent accounts have been sent to the N.C. Debt Setoff Program and are sent letters with balance amounts for collection.

The debt collection agency Saluda formerly hired went out of business last year and the city has had one presentation from a debt collection agency but has not hired another company.

Commissioner Johnnie Kinard said it’s his understanding that the city’s collection rate on utility bills is about 99 percent.

Commissioner George Sweet said it’s his understanding the city had such a large delinquent list because previous boards wanted to keep track of people who didn’t pay their bills years ago. Sweet said the state only allowing the city to go back a few years to collect means a person can sign back up at the same address and the city can’t collect what they owe from any bills owed longer than three years.

Sweet said the positive is the city approved a new water/sewer policy that includes tightening up the process and he thinks that’s going to help.

“You’re down to less than one percent of the year’s revenues that’s not collected and most businesses that operate under a pay-after-you-get-it basis would be tickled to death with that,” Sweet said.

Commissioners later in the meeting got into a discussion with Bultman, who questioned why the city would not release names and addresses of its utility customers.

“What’s wrong with giving the citizens of Saluda a list of the water meters,” Bultman asked. “Why do we get garbage like this? It’s a sheer waste of time, energy and money.”

Saluda City Attorney Bailey Nager told Bultman that she reached a conclusion for herself that state law did not prohibit the disclosure of billing information. The state statute, Nager said, is that if the city wants to give it the city can give it. He said he has not received direction from the board that they want to give out who lives at every address.

Nager said he doesn’t think other towns are giving out that information and he’s absolutely sure if Bultman went to a judge, a judge would say “no,” because the state statute says the city does not have to give that information.

Bultman said Nager is exactly right, but what she is asking is why Saluda’s mayor and four commissioners won’t give that information. She asked what is wrong with giving that information.

Resident Ellen Rogers asked Bultman why she is barking up this tree and said it’s a waste of the city’s time.

“I’m talking about transparency in the way the city does business,” Bultman said.

Commissioner Sweet said he thinks it’s inappropriate to give out that information.

“It is the citizens’ right to know if we are doing things correctly,” Bultman said.

One resident from the audience said she thinks the 99 percent collection rate should be satisfactory enough.