Kelly Welsh hears it.

“The city council’s griping, everybody’s griping about us not filing liens,” said Welsh, billing director for New Albany’s sewer utility.

Welsh was referring to the multitude of past due sewer bills, some dating back to 1999, that the department stopped pursuing through legal channels last November.

After 90 days of nonpayment, the city can report sewer customers to the county auditor with the intent of recovering the money – plus a 10 percent late fee – in court. The uncollected amount at the end of last year was $563,000, according to a state audit, and the utility’s low revenue prompted a rate increase Tuesday.

But there are good reasons for the lapse, Welsh said:

• A staff of two, only recently three, that process 5,509 regular bills a month.

• The lack of a city ordinance allowing liens to be placed on sanitation bills, with which some of the older delinquent bills had been combined without explanation.

• When properties change hands, it is virtually impossible to collect from the old owner, and the new owner isn’t legally responsible for the bill. Many of those bills are written off as bad debt, Welsh said.

• The fielding of about 50 calls a day.

“And then you have to take time to explain everything, so you’re on the phone for a while,” said Missy Sarkisian, who became the department’s third member several months ago.

Mayor James Garner said in mid-August that a clerk exclusively for liens would likely be hired and trained within weeks. A part-time clerk is researching liens for the department in the meantime.

Garner’s Sewer Board colleague Larry Kochert, a city councilman, said those moves are long overdue.

“It’s not right that it’s been since November that there’s been any (liens) filed,” said Kochert, who stressed that Welsh does a good job. “At every [board] meeting, it comes up.”

As for the lack of an ordinance to cover liens on combined sewer and sanitation bills, Kochert said the administration “brought that up very recently. Well, you know, why aren’t we correcting it?”

Sewer Board attorney Greg Fifer said he was investigating the possibility that Indiana code might allow those liens.

Delinquent bills from 1999 to 2003 totaling about $400,000 are the target of the Helvey collection agency, which will get a 50 percent cut of its quarry, Welsh said. She doesn’t expect the city to recover more than $15,000 or $20,000 from those.

For all their workload, Welsh, Sarkisian and Dickey don’t process the majority of sewer bills. Indiana-American Water Co. collects sewer fees on its water bills; the city collects for customers of other water companies, such as Borden Tri-County and Silver Creek.

A stormwater drainage fee also has been added to bills, and Welsh, Sarkisian and April Dickey had their hands full talking to customers who were billed incorrectly. A billing program devised by an outside firm billed for only one month on the first quarter’s bill, meaning that the overlooked months were added to dramatically increase the next bill.

Additionally, some homes were billed as businesses and vice versa, paying the wrong flat rate before the city decided to bill according to paved area in June. Welsh said most of the kinks have been worked out.

The billing department’s three employees are tentatively set to switch office space with one other city employee, Economic Development Director Paul Wheatley. They’ve run out of room to file papers and have nowhere appropriate to sit down and meet with customers.

“It’s hard to do business this way,” Welsh said.

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