City council seeks legal opinion regarding possible billing issue
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After extensive research going back as far as 1947 in response to a complaint raised by officials with the local branch of the NAACP in February, Cairo City Manager Chris Addleton presented the Mayor and Council with evidence that city has been consistent in its policy regarding late fees for utilities customers and cut-off fees stated on monthly utility bills.
However, until last September, the wording in the city’s code of ordinances did not correspond with the city’s long standing billing policy.
Addleton presented the council with a timeline covering utility billing and changes to billing practices dating back to August 1947 through the action taken Sept. 24, 2018 to make the billing policy printed on monthly utility bills match with the utilities ordinance.
The city manager also presented the council with copies of old bills from 1987, 1990, 1992, and 1996 that he said illustrated the city’s consistency in its billing practices. Late fees and service being cut off has been based, in practice, he said, on 19 days after the billing date and 29 days after the billing date, but the ordinance referenced due date rather than billing date.
The NAACP officials alleged that some city residents were assessed late fees and cutoff fees in contradiction with the ordinance.
Mayor Booker Gainor said the contradiction was not addressed until last September. It was the mayor who brought the discrepancy to the attention of the council and shortly after, the NAACP officials appeared before the council seeking relief. On Feb. 12, NAACP President Cindy Williams appeared before the council to lodge a complaint on behalf of city utilities customers.
Addleton acknowledges that the change in billing policy from 1991 was not reflected in the ordinance, but that it was outlined in the approved minutes of the city council from Aug. 12, 1991.
Addleton also pointed out Section 13-4 of the city’s code of ordinances regarding service rates and conditions as fixed. The ordinance states, “The governing body shall be vested with and herby reserves the right from time to time as it may deem expedient, affix the rates and rate conditions applicable to all residential and commercial customers desiring natural gas, water, electricity and sewer service and solid waste collection and disposal, by proper motion or resolution entered on its minutes.”
“The change was not put in ordinance form, but it has been in minute form since 1991,” Addleton said.
Mayor Gainor said that policy is not the actual ordinance and he suggested customers should be compensated within the limits of the statute of limitations. “We have to follow the ordinance don’t we?” the mayor asked.
The city manager asked Thomas L. Lehman, attorney for the city, if the action reflected in the minutes superseded the ordinance language. “It depends on what you are talking about. We may have to go back to the charter,” Lehman responded.
The mayor said it was a mistake of city officials at the time and was not the fault of the current city manager, attorney, city staff or council. Mayor Gainor said the only thing that supersedes a city ordinance is state and federal law, but not meeting minutes.
Lehman said ordinances have to be amended from time to time and the issue is that the ordinance referred to due dates while the billing policy was based on bill dates.
“With that said we have to go by the ordinance,” the mayor contends.
The mayor said that citizens reading the ordinance would have known that late fees were charged 10 days after the due date, not the bill date.
However, the city manager questioned how many utilities customers actually read the ordinance. Addleton insisted the terms on the monthly bill were what residents understood were the city’s terms. “It’s very clear on the bill,” Addleton added.
Councilman James H. (Jimmy) Douglas said that the intent of the council in 1991 was to go from bill date and not due date and the city had billed that way consistently.
“That may have been the intent, but we have to go by the charter, which is law,” the mayor said. Mayor Gainor said the city had to be accountable to the public whether the late fees and cutoff were based on the due date or bill date.
“We could sit here all night and talk about it,” Councilman Douglas said, but he suggested the city attorney and legal representatives of the Georgia Municipal Association bring back a legal opinion on the dispute.
Mayor Gainor said that Lehman had already told the council in September that the city should compensate the customers for up to four years.
The city manager said that much of the information that has been presented to the council since last September was not available to the city attorney or the council for their review.
Lehman said without doubt there are probably other sections of the city’s code of ordinances that need to be revised or amended to match with current policy. Lehman suggested that if customers believe they have been aggrieved a policy should be established for grievances to be heard and acted upon.
Councilman Jerry Cox said, at a minimum, Lehman should consult with other legal representatives to come to a conclusion regarding the mayor’s argument and bring back a written legal opinion to the council.
Lehman expressed confidence that GMA legal representatives could offer guidance and determine if the city has a problem and if so how it should be addressed.
The mayor also suggested it was an opportune time for an overall review of the code of ordinances to address any discrepancies that might exist, as Lehman predicts.
“It would keep us from being liable and accountable,” the mayor said.
Addleton has previously said that approximately $200,000 in late fees and reconnection fees are paid to the city by delinquent utility ratepayers annually.
In other business Monday night, the council:
Heard a report from Addleton that he had denied the request for a live-burn training exercise to be conducted on First Street S.E.
Heard a request from Councilman Douglas for an update from the city attorney regarding the situation with A&R Metals and the firm’s encroachment on the right-of-way of 20th Street N.E/S.E. Lehman indicated a letter had been drafted and was ready to be sent once the council authorized it. “I’ve been ready. It’s only getting worse,” Douglas said.
Heard a request from Councilman Lannis Thornton for resurfacing to be done on Fourth Street S.W. from the CSX railroad crossing south to the intersection of First Street S.W.
Heard comments from Councilman Thornton and Mayor Gainor regarding the abatement of nuisances throughout the city. Both officials urged the city staff to take action in promoting the clean up of unkempt properties and the removal of junk cars throughout the city.