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Town study recommends Pembroke Sewer Commission remain intact

A study committee that has been reviewing the Pembroke Sewer Commission – and the collection of more than $170,000 in unpaid sewer bills from 2012 and earlier – will recommend it continue to run its own billing and collection for the time being.

The committee will present a draft report on the subject tonight at a public meeting.

When concern over the large number of unpaid sewer bills arose at Pembroke’s town meeting in March, the study committee formed to survey the sewer commission’s practices and procedures.

Chairman Dan Crean said the town will continue to help collect on delinquent sewer accounts through the tax lien process, as it has done with some of the outstanding 2012 debts.

But merging the sewer commission with town public works or with the town itself would be too costly, Crean said.

“While there were certain advantages to doing that, the disadvantages seemed to outweigh them,” Crean said. “Sewer and water need to have different certifications for personnel, and it would be difficult to combine equipment because of the need for sanitation.”

The town and commission also use different computer software to manage billing and collecting, he said.

Sewer Commissioner Paulette Malo said she has some concerns with the draft report to bring up at tonight’s meeting, but she agreed the commission should continue to operate as its own entity.

“That’s the way it should be,” Malo said.

Before 2003, the town could place tax liens on the property of residents who had not paid for their sewer usage. Since then, the sewer department has been responsible for its own billing and collection without much leverage to settle growing debts.

In 2012, Pembroke officials stepped in again to help collect more than $170,000 from property owners who had not paid their sewer bills. The town took over collection of about $58,000 in 130 separate accounts, which it handled through tax liens as before.

The study committee’s report states 80 of those accounts have been paid, and Crean said most, if not all, will be paid in time for tax deeding.

But the remaining debts – worth approximately $112,000 – were more than 18 months old, too old to be eligible for tax liens, Crean said. They needed to be handled by the two-person sewer department.

Malo said they sent new collection notices to those property owners and, at the prompting of the town, filed small-claims suits in some of the cases with the largest debts.

“There’s some that are dating back to 2003,” Malo said. “They’re going after the big numbers first.”

Malo said the commission has already begun to do that, and about $30,000 of the overdue $112,000 has been recovered. Five vacant properties are also connected to those unpaid accounts, she said, and the bank will likely settle those debts upon taking possession of the empty properties.

While changing either the sewer commission’s current billing and collecting procedures or its structure is not recommended by the report, the study committee criticized its “serious lack of effective and updated ‘business plans’ in place to address personnel, maintenance and emergency matters.”

The committee also called for the town, the sewer commission and public works to continue to collaborate on better solutions, even consolidating in the future.

“We were instructed by the voters to do this and provide information to town meeting,” Crean said. “We felt that before finalizing something like this (report), we want to let the citizenry, including the ratepayers but also the taxpayers and town, to, A, understand what we did and, B, to have input into our deliberations before we made our report final.”

The draft interim report will be updated based on feedback from today’s public hearing and then submitted for the town report. Copies of the draft are available at the Pembroke town office.

The public hearing will take place at 6:30 tonight at Pembroke Town Hall.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or
mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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