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Customers owe sewer $1.4 million

More than 10 percent of the county’s sewer customers are at least three months behind in their bills and owe more than $325.

With the number of delinquent accounts on the rise, Spokane County officials are considering more aggressive action to get folks to pay up.

“If we continue to have $1.4 million in delinquencies, it’s a big business problem for us,” said Bruce Rawls, Spokane County’s utilities director.

Rawls asked county commissioners on Tuesday to consider new means of collecting past-due bills, including the possibility of foreclosing on property starting in the fall.

Delinquent sewer bills have increased sharply since 2003, when, because of legal issues, the county stopped using the county treasurer’s office to place liens on property. Until then, folks had to settle sewer liens before paying property taxes.

Since the change, the sewer department has placed liens on property without using the treasurer’s office but has never pursued foreclosure.

Unlike many cities, the county doesn’t have much of a stick to collect until the property is sold and the lien paid off.

“They (cities) just shut off the water, and that gets their attention,” Rawls said. “But we don’t have water service.”

Currently, the county places a lien only if a customer is three months late in paying at least $325. About 3,100 people have outstanding sewer liens, mostly on commercial property. Those customers owe about $1 million combined.

Nine customers owe $5,000 or more.

Rawls said a large group of mostly residential customers also are more than three months late, but owe less than $325. Those debts total $447,000.

Sewer service costs about $27 a month or $66 a month if a customer is paying off charges to hook into the system. Commercial bills depend on the amount of water used.

County code says the sewer department “shall” charge 8 percent interest annually on outstanding bills. The county hasn’t charged interest in the past but will when it starts using new billing software this spring, Rawls said.

Rawls proposed waiving interest for people who pay up in the next couple of months. People who don’t settle would pay the 8 percent retroactively.

“It shows a good faith effort on our part to not penalize people unduly,” Rawls said of the potential waiver.

Commissioners expressed concern with charging interest retroactively and starting foreclosure proceedings. They asked Rawls to review state and county laws and present a proposal to them in two weeks.

“This is going to be a very serious move on behalf of the county,” said Commissioner Phil Harris, urging caution before foreclosing. “It’s a lot more than saying we’re going to do this.”