EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the second in an ongoing series of stories about potential problems with Itawamba County’s garbage billing system. The first focused on Golden’s Scotty Rogers, who was billed for $600 in unpaid garbage fees accumulated by the previous two residents of his house years before he bought it. It was published in the May 15 edition of The Times.
In 1994, in accordance with federal and state regulations, Fulton City Landfill officially closed. Following its demise, Itawamba County supervisors voted for Itawamba County to join Three Rivers Solid Waste Authority, which was, at the time, a seven-county, three-city consortium.
From beneath the umbrella of Three Rivers Planning and Development District (TRPDD), a private nonprofit formed by local government entities and business leaders to promote economic development and community planning, the idea behind Three Rivers SWA was to offer counties an affordable billing process as well as land fill disposal.
Since then, TRPDD’s solid waste program has grown to service 14 counties in North Mississippi. Software developed in 1993 by TRPDD employee Gordon Easterling is used to track garbage bills for residence in each county covered by the organization.
According to Easterling, Three Rivers SWA has been using and improving the software since Itawamba County came on board in the mid-1990s.
“Itawamba County has been on the system since they became a part of Three Rivers,” Easterling told The Times. “Our system is efficient and works well. Like all softwares, we are continually making improvements and enhancements to make it even more beneficial.”
In 2014, further improvements to the software provided automatic updates to local tax collectors, granting them real-time access to customer accounts. All counties were given the ability to log on to the system to monitor their solid waste database. According to Easterling, the information is continuously updated.
“With the ability to [access a virtual private network], each county has the most current account information available to them,” Easterling said.
Prior to adding online access, Itawamba County officials used two books to track local garbage bill liens: one listing garbage bill liens by the property owner’s name and another by the physical property address. Copies of both books were placed in the chancery clerk’s office and made available to the public for researching outstanding liens. The books were reprinted monthly to ensure they were up-to-date with the latest information.
The books became obsolete after improvements to Three Rivers’ software allowed attorneys and abstractors to research liens via computers inside the chancery clerk’s office.
Along with the 2014 update, the local tax collector’s was given the ability to deny the purchase of a tag if a property owner’s bill is not current, in accordance with state law. Property owners with delinquent fines have their accounts flagged, giving notice to clerks inside the tax collector’s office to deny issuing that property owner a car tag until the debt is paid.
According to Easterling, a garbage bill becomes delinquent if it remains unpaid more than 90 days. Itawamba County leaders receive a monthly report on delinquent garbage bills, which is used to place liens on properties and prevent the properties’ owners from purchasing car tags until the fine is paid.
“The balances are always changing,” he said. “Once a bill is over 90 days, there is a lien placed on the property itself.”
Balances owed are marked as “past due” and printed on monthly garbage bills. Delinquency amounts can range into hundreds of dollars if the debt has not been settled.
A reoccurring problem with renters leaving a property with lingering garbage debt prompted Three Rivers SWA to pursue other means of getting payment. According to Tonya Shirley, TRPDD Division Director/Fee Billing, the ongoing issue led them to add LexisNexis, a computer-assisted legal research program giving them access to track debtors.
“It’s the same system that many collection agencies use,” Shirley said. “It allows us to track a person to their latest address, and we then forward the bill. We try to exhaust all means in getting the individual who incurred the debt to pay.”
If the debt isn’t paid by the person who incurred it, it becomes a lien and remains attached to the property itself. When the property changes hands, the debt and the associated lien go with it. As per state law, county-owed debts cannot be forgiven.
According to Three Rivers SWA Fee Billing Annual Report for 2017-2018, Itawamba County’s annual revenue for garbage collection is over $1.2 million. There are currently over 7,000 garbage accounts the County.
The recurring issue of the seemingly sudden appearance of liens against properties has led several residents to question the board of supervisors concerning the process by which the liens are levied and the law that regulates them. On the same token, residents who dodge paying their monthly garbage bill at any cost create complications for unknowing property owners and the system that bills them.
TRPDD Executive Director Randy Kelley told The Times the system Three Rivers SWA uses to process and bill area solid waste customers is unique and effective. The system has drawn the attention of municipalities outside of TRPDD’s coverage area.
“We are very proud of our team and the efforts we’ve made toward being the best available source of billing for our counties’ garbage service,” Kelley said. “Our software is a moving target, and we are constantly making improvements to it. I’d put against anyone else’s in the southeast.”