Property manager criticizes Muncie Sanitary District utility billing
By Rick Yencer
MUNCIE, IN - The Muncie Sanitary District sewage billing practices that adds thousands of dollars to delinquent bills came under fire Tuesday by a property manager and realtor who said government needed to do a better job of notifying customers.
Tom Parker, who runs F.C. Tucker Realty and Parker Property Management, pointed out how the district's tiny postcard that reminds customers of their sewage bill is easy disregarded in the flood of junk mail and by renters and property owners who leave town for other jobs.
Parker pointed out to Muncie"s Board of Sanitary Commissioners how one bill for $80 in sewage fees turned into a $1,500 bill after Pete Drumm, sanitary district attorney, tacked on hundreds of dollars in delinquent penalties and attorney fees in his quest to collect the charges.
"I don't have a problem with Pete Drumm making alot of money," said Parker, but he did have a problem with that postcard that gets lost in the mail and never paid by renters and property owners.
Parker, who manages more than 100 properties of people who left town for other jobs or other reasons, said the sewage bills keep piling up along with attorney fees and delinquent charges that nobody pays.
And trying to sell a property with delinquent bills is a vicious cycle, as Parker said, as property owners in other communities are stuck paying the bill or their property managers and future owners.
Tom Bennington, sanitary board president, could only say the district was following the law as he expressed no interest in putting a hold on the sewage collection program that has made Drumm nearly a $1 million in attorney fees and costs. It also earned the district about a $1 million in delinquent charges.
And Deborah Ervin, the district's financial manager, said the sewage utility office did not have enough manpower to track down actual owners and bill them for delinquencies even if they left town.
Parker thought the district could put their bill in an envelope like electric, water, and gas utility customers to get a better return on payment. Bennington quickly said that would cost more money just like more employees to help sort through property ownership on delinquent bills.
That excuse that the district could not afford a better collection system came right after the district appropriated more than $1.2 million in storm water revenue to pay for sewer maintenance, flood control, a cleanout of the wastewater treatment plant's lagoon and other engineering expenses. That is part of the 600 percent increase in storm water property assessments to comply with federal Clean Water Act and satisfy state environmental officials who demanded the city comply with separating storm and sanitary sewers.
The district just approved up to $34 million in indebtedness to comply with separating CSOs and has been on a spending spree to separate sewers and repair the aging treatment plant. That is just a piece of the estimated $168 million in total cost.
Bennington denied the district bought any new equipment or hired more employees to deal with the storm water mandate.Some citizens have questioned the relatively new trucks that storm water officials drive that are parked on Main at High streets any given weekday.
And the district has plans to hire a project engineer and others to help with storm water construction besides spending another $2 million on private engineers to actuallly design plans and inspect the work.
Complying with the clean water law could cost utility customers and property owners more than $168 million over the next 20 years. And only a handful of people have come to the sanitary board raising their objections about higher utility fees and property tax assessments.
The newest sanitary board member, Mike Cline, also city engineer, did ask questions that Bennington and fellow board member Steve Murphy did not, about the impact and cost of CSO work and appropriations out of the storm water fund.
It's becoming obvious that the district will continue to take delinquent customers to court while Drumm makes more money. Bennington also is committed to spending more money out of the storm water fund in the name of clean water. The overall storm water work could cost well over $300 million as the federal government comes up with other rules to treat all storm water besides separating it from raw sewage,