Mississippi’s law dictating how local officials can collect unpaid garbage fines is basically a sledgehammer. It’s meant to do a certain job – in this case, provide county leaders with a means to collect the unpaid garbage fines attached to a piece of property, regardless of who’s living there or accrued those fines – with little in the way of nuance.
But sometimes, nuance is necessary. Take last week in Itawamba County, for example. Local supervisors fielded a concern about a lien on a property because of roughly $1,200 in unpaid garbage fines. Those fines were amassed over an 11-year period, from 1994 to 2005, in which the owner of the house, Bobby Patterson, allowed its occupant to stay on the property free-of-charge. According to Patterson, the house had neither running water nor sewage. Patterson said solid waste didn’t stop at the house because its was mostly abandoned. The occupant was … for lack of a better term … squatting with permission from the owner.
Patterson claimed he wasn’t notified of the unpaid fines until years after the house’s occupant died. State law requires a lien be placed on a piece of property with unpaid garbage fines. When the property is sold, the new owner inherits the debt. As long as that lien remains in place, the property owner will be denied the purchase of his or her vehicle tags.
Patterson said he was told about the fines two years ago and was prevented from purchasing a car tag this year … 13 years after the occupant of the house died. The property has been empty since then.
Because Patterson’s situation was unusual – he was letting an impoverished man suffering from a medical condition stay in the house rent-free – supervisors were sympathetic. Legally, they’re also not able to do much about it. Mississippi law is inflexible in its methods to ensure its county-run solid waste departments aren’t a burden to local taxpayers. Because unpaid fines are attached to the properties themselves, not the person who accrued the fines, local leaders can never lose track of money that’s owed to the taxpayers. And once a lien is in place, it stays until the fines are paid.
Over the years, local supervisors have fielded one complaint after another about the burden of unpaid garbage fines placed on property owners who didn’t originally amass them. In several instances, the property owners didn’t receive notices of the liens on their properties until years … sometimes decades … after their purchase. In almost every case, supervisors said they could not forgive the debts because of the state’s laws. This has been used as both an apology and an excuse.
With Patterson, it was the former. But rather than upholding the state’s regulations, supervisors voted in favor of forgiving Patterson’s debt. This decision comes with personal risk. According to board attorney Bo Russell, should the county be audited, the supervisors who voted in favor of forgiving Patterson’s debt could be held financially liable for the money they forgave.
Normally, we wouldn’t advocate our local leaders buck state law, but there are instances when the ability to decide whether or not an unpaid garbage fine deserves to be forgiven should be in their hands. We acknowledge the state law is meant to protect taxpayer dollars … a noble cause, to be sure. And we’re not suggesting we here at a little local paper know a better solution.
What we do know is that our elected supervisors don’t need a sledgehammer when a ball–peen will do, and it isn’t too much to expect them to be the ones who, in certain circumstances, decide which tool is appropriate.