Mayor Les Fillingame has not signed a utility ordinance designed to end City Hall’s practice of giving some residents and business owners grace periods on their water and gas bills without interruption in service or fear of debt collection.
City attorney Trent Favre announced the mayor’s inaction at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, saying Fillingame neither signed nor vetoed the council’s amendment to the utility ordinance.
“Why would the mayor not sign this?” Councilman Doug Seal said. “Last year, we had two or three restaurants skip out on us for $6,000-plus.”
Fillingame was not at the meeting. The city clerk and some of his staff were, but they did not have any answers for Seal.
For several years, outside auditors have noted significant problems with delinquent utility accounts on the city’s books.
In 2013, auditors noticed several city employees and other customers were several months late in payments, yet “cutoff procedures were not performed” and “late fees were waived.”
In a sampling of utility billings that year, auditors found one resident was drinking from the city’s tap for free, “consuming several thousand gallons of water each month and was billed at zero gallons usage.”
I pay my bill — you pay your bill. It shouldn’t be about who you know.
Councilman Doug Seal
The problem appeared to worsen the following year. According to the 2014 audit, “numerous (city) employees, residents, and businesses were past due in excess of two months with their utility payments, and cutoffs were not performed” ... “customers were not assessed penalties if their accounts were past due.”
That year, the auditors’ reports indicated City Hall was making “improper or unauthorized adjustments” to the amounts due on some residents’ bills without proper documentation noting the reason for the adjusted amounts.
This practice, the auditors noted, was not only hurting the city’s cash flow but was “in violation of the City’s policies.” Nevertheless, the 2015 audit findings were similar to those of the prior years.
Fillingame’s administration was, and technically still is, under an ordinance that allows the city to work with residents and business owners who are behind on utility payments, though it does not allow “improper or unauthorized adjustments” to anyone’s bill.
Determined to end the practice, the City Council made a small change to that part of the ordinance in March, passing an amendment that would require cutoffs on past-due accounts.
“I’ve been trying to get this done for a long, long, long, long time,” Seal said.
When asked later why he hadn’t signed the ordinance, Fillingame said he thought he did sign it but must have forgotten.
Seal said City Hall’s enforcement of utility cutoffs is “very political.” Looking at a list of utility accounts, he said the same particular accounts seem to show up delinquent each month.
“I pay my bill — you pay your bill,” he said. “It shouldn’t be about who you know.”
The mayor dismissed any suggestion that politics plays a part in utility collections and said the finance department handles it all without any kind of input from him.
“We’ve never had anything political go through collections,” Fillingame said. “That’s why I don’t even allow any of that to go through me.”
He said it would be rare for something like a delinquent utility account to make its way up to the mayor’s office.
“Well,” Seal said, “(the amendment) had very clean language. I’m not sure why the mayor would not sign it.”
The city attorney informed the council members Tuesday they would need to sign the ordinance in place of Fillingame, and it would take effect.