City Ponders Stinky Fix For Unpaid Bills

City staffers in Elk Grove are working on a proposal to stop picking up trash and recyclables from residential customers who are severely behind in their utility bill payments.

The city said over the past year, the proportion of utility customers who are at least four months delinquent has grown from 4 percent to nearly 10 percent. Currently, the city sends out warnings to those customers, then adds a lien on their property and eventually includes the charge on the homeowner's yearly property tax bill.

However, city finance director Rebecca Craig said the current process can take 18 months and that the total amount of unpaid bills has grown to $1 million.

Craig added that the city contracts with a private company to collect solid waste and is required to pay the company whether or not it collects from customers.

"We have to come up with an extreme idea of how we're ultimately going to get collections, if we're not getting payment plans and if we're not getting it to the tax rolls in a timely basis," Craig said.

One idea that staffers will present to City Council in May is to suspend trash and recycling services for customers five or more months behind.

Other proposals include setting up extended payment plans for people in economic difficulty and requiring deposits for new customers and previously suspended customers.

"We think that the majority of people once they become aware of this new change will be contacting us and requesting a payment plan," Craig said.

However, she expects at least some suspended customers to continue to put garbage out, and in those cases code enforcement officers will get involved.

The problem of unpaid trash collection bills isn't unique to Elk Grove: The city of Sacramento budgets every year for unpaid utility bills.

The current budget was supposed to include about $1 million to cover those bad debts. A city representative said the actual number will be closer to five times as much.

However, Sacramento said it does not cut people services off for lack of payment.

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