City works to collect thousands of dollars in overdue utility bills

MARFA – The City of Marfa is mailing out notifications to some residents with overdue bills, with notices likely to hit inboxes early next week. The notifications by mail is the latest effort by the City of Marfa to collect on overdue utility payments that have saddled the city with over half a million dollars in unpaid bills.

“We are contacting people who are at least 120 days overdue, with a fairly large amount, and asking them to work with us to get them paid,” said City Manager Mandy Roane who is working with Utility Clerk Lori Flores to oversee collecting debt. Customers who have racked up over $1,000 in unpaid bills and are 120 days or more overdue will get notified by mail this coming week.

In September, the city discovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills had gone uncollected. By October of 2020, the total utility debt was $576,101.35 owed to the city, and over $400,000 of that was overdue. As previously reported by The Big Bend Sentinel, 28 accounts had accumulated bills over $5,000, and three accounts owed more than $10,000 each.

Roane said that number has not changed much since October. “There are still people with outstanding bills so that’s gone up,” she said, “but I know the utility clerk has been working to determine people who have passed away or sold their properties. We’ve been working on identifying bad debt.”

After determining the total amount owed to the city by its service-users during budget workshops last fall, the city wrote in a line item of over $220,000 to be used for writing off bad debt. “The budget is not taking a hit because of bad debt,” Roane said. “We were prepared.”

Much of the bad debt has been identified, but the city hasn’t formally deleted it from the system or written it off. It is the mayor’s job to write off bad debt, and Mayor Manny Baeza explained that bad debt can come from a variety of sources. Some homeowners in the city that have passed away never had services shut off, and bills were accumulating unnoticed. Others have sold or left town without closing down their accounts, and bills have racked up there, even when the person has no ties to the city anymore.

As the city continues to figure out which accounts they are unlikely to be able to collect payments on, the mayor will write them off under that budgeted line item, which will help keep the city books balanced despite the lost revenue.

“We’re not just randomly cutting people off, we’re talking to people, asking them to come in to make a payment plan,” Roane said. “If we do do a disruption of service, it won’t be out of the blue.” The last time the city shut off utilities for lack of payment was one year ago, ceasing when COVID-19 began its spread.

For now the city manager said Marfa is holding off on resorting to shutting off utilities. “We don’t want to do that,” the city manager said. “We want people to have their services continue and get their utility accounts up to date.”