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Pembroke to consider studying how to collect unpaid sewer bills, totaling $170,000

With uncollected bills piling up to more than $170,000 at the end of last year, it’s time to review the Pembroke Sewer Commission, according to a proposal from the town budget committee.

The unpaid bills equal almost 20 percent of the sewer department’s budget, and the result is paying customers may end up subsidizing those who can’t or don’t pay, said budget committee member Gerry Fleury.

A committee should spend the next year reviewing the practices and procedures of the commission and see whether there might be improvements to be made, or whether the commission should be disbanded and operations moved to the town public works, Fleury and the rest of the budget committee said in an article to be debated at town meeting next month.

“If you follow it out, if you were the last person foolish enough to pay your sewer bill, you’d get an $800,000 sewer bill,” he said. “To me, it’s absolutely irresponsible.”

That said, Fleury has no harsh words for the sewer commissioners, who answered all his questions at a meeting last fall, and said they’re just following the rules established by the town.

“I believe they are doing their absolute best and doing what they think is right, but they’re being overwhelmed,” he said.

Before 2003, the town tax collector could bill property owners who didn’t pay for their sewer usage, and ultimately place liens on their property, said sewer Commissioner Paulette Malo. The sewer department has been on its own since then, and unable to place liens or otherwise enforce collections, she said.

Approximately two-thirds of properties in town are connected to the sewer system, she said.

Since December, property owners have paid or established payment plans for several thousands of dollars of the uncollected bills, said Malo, who has been with the department for the past 19 years. Unpaid sewer bills are subject to an interest rate of 12 percent per year.

The unpaid bills have spiked in the past two years, she said, though the
entire unpaid balance includes some bills that date back to 2003. The commission has delayed some maintenance work at the pump station because of the lack of funds, she said.

Fleury would like the new committee, if created by voters at town meeting, to study what can be done to collect past due bills, create a program to look at improvements for the department, especially to reduce infiltration of water into the sewer lines, and create a business continuity plan. The proposal is not to disband the commission, he said.

“I will speak to their defense if somebody tried to disband them at town meeting. It would be premature,” he said. “You don’t throw something out unless you’re sure its broken beyond repair. Before that, you fix it if you can. I’d like to see us get plans in place to deal with deficiencies, but if it comes to the fact that the committee comes back and says it is broken, that’s a different story.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or
spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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