City council members debated over fees, interest charges and penalties currently imposed on property owners who have delinquent taxes or bills. Council member Janet Evans spearheaded a vote to eliminate what she called "draconian" charges of $1,735 on delinquent bills. Her motion was defeated in a three to two vote.
The other council member who agreed with Evans was Bill Courtright.
Evans said the city can’t expect to "get blood from a stone."
She claimed residents live in fear of losing their homes to sheriff’s sales not because they can’t pay their delinquent bill, but because they can’t pay the excess fees. And, the fees go entirely to Northeast Credit and Collections (NCC), the agency hired by the city to track down late bills, not into the city coffers.
Research shows most people become delinquent because of unemployment, meager wages, or health care costs, which are all issues plaguing city residents, Evans added.
Council member Sherry Fanucci attacked Evans’ argument as "election year scare tactics" aimed at the city’s elderly population. Any residents who are having trouble can call the NCC and they will get help to clear up their payments.
Fanucci called Evans’ arguments "unprofessional" and "ludicrous." Evans said Fanucci has difficulty "showing respect" to fellow council, which drew some grumbling from Fanucci.
Evans pointed out the ordinance on delinquent bills as written does not offer any provisions or exceptions for residents to get help adding that’s why the amendment should be adopted.
Bill Courtright agreed with Evans saying all taxpayers should divvy up what they owe, however there are some that can’t for reasons beyond their control.
Council president Robert McGoff said the additional charges serve as a "deterrent" to chronic delinquencies and a "punitive" measure aimed at absentee landlords. He said changing the original ordinance adopted in 2007 would "take the teeth out of the law."
After the ordinance was adopted in 2007, $130,000 of additional tax revenue was generated almost immediately, McGoff added. The current tax delinquency rate for 2008 is lower than 2007 and 2006, McGoff said.
Council woman Judy Gatelli sided with the majority pointing out absentee "slumlords" in the city have a history of ignoring their city taxes and are "learning" they can’t get away with it anymore.
Fanucci said the rules are necessary to protect the people who do pay their taxes by ensuring they won’t have to cover the deficits left by the non-taxpayers.
In other discussions, council member Evans warned taxpayers about the $444 million debt principal "behemoth" hovering over the city. She said voters have to decide in 2009 whether to continue to increase debt or take action to pay it down. She said $273 million of the debt is directly tied to mayor Chris Doherty’s administration and has been "glamorized and sanitized."
Several taxpayers expressed concerns about the city’s financial duress and asked council to use their authority to enact legislation to protect the residents.