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 Town Getting Tough on Delinquent Utility Customers

March 7, 2007 - According to Knightstown's chief financial officer, utility customers with delinquent bills could soon face lawsuits as the town steps up collection efforts.

At the town council's February 21 meeting, Clerk-Treasure Judy Haines announced that the town is starting to pursue utility customers who haven't paid their bills more aggressively. She said the town's utilities have, over the past few years, accumulated more than $50,000 in bad debts.

"We need to be able to collect our fees," Haines said. Of the 1,700 utility customers the town has, she said 330 disconnect notices had to be sent out the last billing cycle due to nonpayment of bills. "If you have a bill, you might want to get it paid," she said. "We're not trying to be mean; we're just being prudent with your tax dollars."

Haines told the council that the town recently sued a delinquent customer in small claims court and won. She said the court also ordered that customer to pay close to $1,000 in addition to their unpaid bills to cover the town's court costs and attorney fees.

The three council members present for that night's meeting - President David Glenn and members Steve Nelson and Cort Swincher - gave Haines permission to contact H.J. Umbaugh & Associates, Indianapolis-based accountants, to work with them, as needed, on rate issues. Haines said the town's water rates have not been raised since 1992.

Mel Matlock, the town's works manager, told the council that some other towns have been able to reduce the number of delinquent customers by allowing bills to be paid with credit cards. He said he had some information on this and would provide it to the council.

In other business, the council introduced an ordinance that will, if ultimately enacted, annex two residential properties on the west end of town near Knightstown High School. One of the properties is owned by Matlock, and the other is a neighboring piece of land. The council is expected to schedule and hold a public hearing on the proposed annexations prior to taking the second and third votes needed to pass the ordinance.

The council enacted two ordinances at the February 21 meeting that had been first introduced in January, approving both on second and third readings. The first ordinance amends the town's salary ordinance to change the chief of police and court clerk from hourly to salaried positions, while the second one authorizes Haines to pay certain claims in advance of getting approval from the council. The council also approved new policies - standard operating procedures (SOPs) - for town employees and the Knightstown Police Department.

The council asked Matlock to develop a list of road paving projects an bring them to the March meeting. He said the town has about $50,000 to spend on paving this year. The paving projects will be put out for bid in April.

Matlock told the council the town had expended about $1,500 for overtime pay and about $1,500 for sand and salt to deal with recent snowstorms that hit the area. Since a snow emergency was declared, he said he hoped the town would get reimbursed.

"I think you guys did an excellent job," said Nelson.

Glenn, who said he had plowed snow more than 20 years, also praised Matlock and his employees. "I've never seen a job done that quick," he said.

Swincher said seven people had called him and four others talked to him in person about the snow removal. He said all the comments were positive.

Jake Adams of Jake's Hearing and Air Conditioning told the council they will install Carrier heat pumps at town hall, not Goodmans, as stated in a proposal approved by the council the week before. Adams said the change would result in no extra expense for the town and said the Carrier units use a different type of refrigerant that will be more cost-effective.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Knightstown resident Jim Hope took issue with the council's decision to make cuts to the town's park fund. The proposed 2007 budget the town submitted to the state last fall included less for the park fund budget than had been in the 2006 budget.

"I think it's a shame to take money away from the park," Hope said. "I think that's the one thing we shouldn't cut the budget on." Hope said he thought the town had little to offer its youth in terms of recreation.

Nelson, who is the council's appointee to the park board, told Hope the park board is about to begin working on development of a five-year plan for the park. He said completion of that task should help the board get grants for the park.

Responding to an issue that been brought up at the council's January meeting, the council's attorney, David Copenhaver said he didn't think the Knightstown Town Court would be affected much by the city of New Castle's decision to have its city court begin hearing traffic violation cases. Before the change, citations for traffic violations occurring in New Castle were heard in the Knightstown court.

"I don't think you'll see any change, really, in your court down here," Copenhaver, who also represents the city of New Castle, told the council. His comments did not address concerns raised by a Knightstown citizen at the January meeting about why he had not advised the Knightstown Town Council that New Castle was planning to make this change.


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