Unpaid trash fees are costing Harrisburg an average of $200,000 a month – a problem that city Treasurer Dan Miller thinks can be fixed by billing residents once a year for disposal services.
Miller proposed an annual trash billing structure earlier this year as part of an overhaul of Harrisburg’s sanitation laws. But City Council nixed the measure, saying it would stress the cash flow of low-income and fixed-income residents.
The city currently bills residents $32 a month for trash collection. It also has a monopoly on commercial accounts in the city.
Miller appeared before council on Tuesday night to renew the case for annual billing. He’s proposing that Harrisburg include a line item for trash fees on every property’s annual real estate tax bill, which is mailed out in January. The trash collection fee would be subject to the same 2 percent, 60-day discount period as the real estate tax.
The city currently has a 98-percent collection rate on its real estate taxes. Miller hopes that trash fee collections would increase by streamlining the two bills into one. It would also save an estimated $100,000 a year in mailing costs.
Collecting up-front payments is key, Miller said, since the treasurer’s office doesn’t have many means to pursue delinquent accounts.
According to Miller, Harrisburg lost enforcement authority over delinquent trash bills when it restructured under the Harrisburg Strong Plan, the financial recovery plan it adopted in 2013.
Before the Strong Plan, Harrisburg had an in-house collections arm in its Operations Revenue Department (ORD). When the department could not collect bills from delinquent accounts, it could turn off the water at those properties to spur a payment.
But the Strong Plan dissolved the ORD and transferred Harrisburg’s water assets to Capital Region Water. As a result, the city lost the ability to terminate water services at delinquent properties.
“People discovered that, if they didn’t pay their bill, their trash was still collected and nothing else happened,” Miller said. “Maybe their bill went up [from interest], but nobody was doing anything about it.”
Today, the city treasurer’s office doesn’t have the enforcement “teeth” it needs to collect delinquent payments, Miller said. He believes that a new billing structure will mitigate the monthly bleed of unpaid bills.
“We just want council to give us the tools to do our job in an effective and efficient manner,” Miller said. “From my perspective, there is very little drawback to this.”
In all, Miller’s office calculated that the city has lost out on $12 million over a multi-year period. Miller isn’t confident that the city will see any of that money, which, he said, is why it’s important to move to a new billing system sooner rather than later.
If low-income residents have a hard time making an annual payment, Miller said, council could develop a program to waive or reduce fees for eligible residents.
Miller is also proposing that residents be allowed to opt in to monthly auto-payments. He stressed that, while billing practices may change, the cost of trash services in Harrisburg would not.
Council members seemed amenable to that proposal tonight. Miller was hopeful that they could implement a change to take effect in 2019, but Mayor Eric Papenfuse said that’s unlikely.
“We’re probably looking at 2020 at this point,” he said.
Councilman Westburn Majors, who chairs the Public Works Committee and spearheaded the sanitation ordinance overhaul earlier this year, said he would be open to talking about Miller’s proposal more as the city moves into its 2019 budget cycle.