EDITORIAL: Lee County's unpaid fines

By NEMS Daily Journal

Lee County’s delinquent solid waste hauling fees range from small household bills to large commercial accounts, a total that’s grown to a staggering $1 million-plus on the books, and with some past-due balances uncollectable because of deaths or untraceable account holders.
While the past-dues are huge, current account collections exceed 90 percent most of the time, a better record than some other counties or even some private businesses.
The amount climbs even with good-faith, partially successful efforts to collect the delinquencies because state law does not allow write-offs of bad debt. When the county’s left holding the bag for a property owner or renter whose garbage has been collected skips out, dies or moves, the options are limited, and service must continue.
The tax collector can refuse to sell a new car tag until a delinquent bill has been paid, and commercial solid waste pick-up can be terminated, but residential service can’t be denied under state law, including new service at a different address.
A lien can be placed on property for unpaid fees, but the property cannot be sold in the same sense as selling property for delinquent taxes.
Even professional contract work by Franklin Collection Service, a major regional firm based in Tupelo, has not brought the amount under control.
Collection firms usually add a fee on top of the amount, or collect the amount and charge part of the delinquent total as a fee. One costs consumers more, the other means the full fee isn’t collected by the county.
County Administrator Sean Thompson and Lee County Solid Waste Enforcement Director Shawn Hairald said the total has been building for several years because of the collection limitations.
District 1 Supervisor Phil Morgan said he would like to see the Legislature grant more collection powers to counties and communities. As Thompson and Hairald noted, costs have risen and a rate increase seems inevitable at some point.
Standard service is $9 per month for residents on Lee County routes, but that could be increased as regular operating costs go up. It is not an item on the Board of Supervisors’ agenda, and it doesn’t seem likely during the 2011 election cycle.
All ratepayers who pay a year in advance get a 13th month of service at no charge, or the fee can be paid monthly by sending payment back with the billing postcard mailed every month, or a bank draft can be arranged.
As long as some customers don’t pay, a greater burden eventually will be passed on to those who do.