Oak Bluffs selectmen will review the town’s policy on collecting overdue sewer bills, after learning that former selectman Kerry Scott is the only wastewater district customer allowed a “courtesy hold,” forestalling a tax lien and interest on a long overdue bill. Ms. Scott has overdue wastewater bills from her retail store and apartment building on Circuit Avenue extending for the past two years, according to town records.
The issue first came to light when an accounting firm hired to help with the town’s financial operations asked why Ms. Scott’s bill was the only one not forwarded for a lien, according to town documents.
Unlike all other wastewater customers with overdue bills, Ms. Scott’s balance of $513, overdue since November of 2009, did not trigger the lien process, and she was not charged the customary 18 percent interest.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Ms. Scott said she paid the bill recently.
“I want to say a week and a half ago,” Ms. Scott said. “I paid the penalties. There may be additional penalties and interest, and I’ll pay that.”
She said she was unaware that a courtesy hold had been placed on the bill, and unaware that she was the only wastewater customer given the courtesy. Ms. Scott said the bill was overdue because she thought her mortgage company paid the bill from an escrow account.
As of June 1, town records also show Ms. Scott has not paid her most recent wastewater bill of $508, overdue since November of 2010.
Taking it to the top
Wastewater commission chairman Bob Iadiciccio made all selectmen aware of the issue on Friday, July 22, in an email asking them to look into the long overdue bill.
“I am concerned because this is the only recorded instance of non-enforcement and imposed interest charges,” Mr. Iadiciccio wrote in an email.
The next day selectman Walter Vail replied to Mr. Iadiciccio.
“Kerry has told me that the check went in the mail on Thursday [July 21],” Mr. Vail wrote.
In response, Mr. Iadiciccio wrote, “It appears that it was a year late, with no interest charged. Can I get that deal?”
“This is town policy, but no doubt too liberal,” Mr. Vail replied. “Kathy [Burton, chairman of the board of selectmen] and I will review with tax collector for possible change and update.”
In a public records request on May 5, The Times asked Ms. Sashin, who is responsible for collecting wastewater payments, for a copy of any written polices or procedures that define the basis for granting a courtesy hold on overdue wastewater bills, a written copy of any contract or agreement on overdue accounts, and a list of all taxpayers currently granted courtesy holds. On May 6, she provided The Times with a list of 30 people and companies. In an accompanying e-mail, Ms. Sashin said it was a current list of accounts on hold for which liens might be applied.
The records included 29 accounts that were on courtesy hold for overdue bills other than wastewater bills, listed together with one account on courtesy hold for a wastewater bill. The amounts of the bills were listed, but the type of account was not. The only person on the list afforded a courtesy hold for a wastewater bill was Ms. Scott.
Ms. Sashin said there are no written policies or procedures for such forbearance, and she grants it at her sole discretion.
In a later conversation at town hall, Ms. Sashin said The Times erred in its brief report on her explanation of courtesy holds, but declined to specify the errors. She told a Times reporter any further requests for public records would have to go through the selectmen’s office, because she didn’t have time to respond to them.
In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Ms. Sashin said she had not yet received payment for Ms. Scott’s overdue bill. She declined comment when asked whether Ms. Scott asked for the courtesy hold. “I don’t like to comment on individual circumstances,” Ms. Sashin said. “If you need any other information, you have to go through the board of selectmen. I’m very busy now.”
Again Tuesday, Ms. Sashin said The Times erred in reporting about courtesy holds, but would not specify what she thought was in error. She declined any other comment.
In May, Ms. Sashin said the decision to give a taxpayer a courtesy hold is at her sole discretion.
According to Ms. Sashin, if a bill is overdue, the wastewater customer gets a demand notice, and if the bill is still not paid after a year, the collector transfers the balance to the customer’s real estate tax bill. If the bill is still not paid, the town may then place a lien on the customer’s property.
A courtesy hold granted by Ms. Sashin delays that transfer and the lien, as well as interest charges. She said when there are extenuating circumstances, the courtesy hold gives customers time to pay before the town takes legal steps to collect the debt.
“It’s available to anyone who asks for it,” Ms. Sashin said when interviewed by telephone in May. “Each individual circumstance varies for each taxpayer,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “It is in good faith that I believe these particular accounts will be paid prior to a second review and subsequent lien.”
The lack of any written policies and procedures for financial operations is an issue the town’s auditors have raised for several years, according to Jim Powers, of Powers & Sullivan, the town’s independent auditor.
He raised the issue again Tuesday night at the selectmen’s regular meeting, in a management letter attached to the fiscal year 2009 audit.
“I plan to add the policy and procedure discussion and formulation for wastewater liens to all of the other policies and procedures we’re working on,” Ms. Burton said Tuesday. “I can’t give you a priority on that because we have so much happening. We’ve just come from an exit audit with the auditors. I know we’re going to look at multiple, multiple areas that need to have policies and procedures.”