Unpaid Wyoming Valley Levee fees have snowballed to $1.3 million, prompting officials to step up collection efforts.
“That’s a huge amount of money, and we have to do everything in our power to collect that,” said Christopher Belleman, executive director of the county Flood Protection Authority that oversees both the fee and levee along the Susquehanna River.
The authority has hired Norristown-based Portnoff Law Associates Ltd. to collect delinquent fees and pursue legal action against property owners who fail to pay after a grace period, Belleman said.
Wilkes-Barre-based Northeast Revenue Service LLC previously handled both current and delinquent collections but will now focus only on current bills, he said.
The Portnoff company specializes in municipal delinquent collection and will “make full use” of options under the law, he said, unable to provide specifics about the action at this time. The cost of enhanced collection efforts will fall on property owners who refuse to pay, not the authority and those who pay the fee on time, Belleman said.
The past approach of filing liens against properties carrying delinquent fees has not yielded significant results because the liens have little impact on property owners unless they want to sell their real estate, Belleman said.
Liens remain with a property until the debt is paid and can lower the credit ratings of impacted property owners.
The fee on 14,200 properties is the authority’s only revenue stream to fulfill its mission of maintaining the 16-mile flood control system so it’s ready for activation when the Susquehanna rises.
Based on the assessment of structures, not land, the fee ranges from $46.85 to $93.70 for residential properties and $93.70 to $676.44 for commercial, industrial and tax-exempt properties.
The fee has not increased since it was implemented in 2009 to end reliance on county funding.
Imposed on levee-protected properties impacted by the 1972 Agnes Flood, the fee generates around $1.14 million annually, officials have said.
Collecting delinquent payments should help the authority’s efforts to avoid or minimize a rate increase, Belleman said.
The authority has warned fee payers to expect an increase in 2016, but Belleman said he is trying to delay an increase until 2017.
The 2016 bills are scheduled to be mailed Oct. 1. Belleman is preparing a five-year plan as part of the rate-increase decision.
“The board members and I all recognize that some areas are economically challenged, and we are doing everything we can to not raise the fee,” Belleman said. “To do the right thing for rate payers, we have to make sure everyone pays their fair share.”
Funding for maintenance and capital projects must be considered because the levee system includes 13 pump stations with 39 pumps, eight electrical substations with 27 transformers and nine miles of overhead electric transmission lines, he said.
The authority must comply with strict U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mandates to keep the levee certified, he said.
Portnoff soon will send delinquent property owners a notice stating their outstanding balances and a schedule of legal fees the company may assess against their property if the owners fail to respond.
Notice recipients will have a 30-day grace period to make payment arrangements, Belleman said. Property owners with large balances will be permitted to enter into payment plans spanning up to six months, and a hardship program allowing longer payment terms will be available to owner-occupied residences if the owners submit evidence of financial difficulties.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.