Delinquent taxpayers in West Jefferson will now face the possibility of having their water and sewer service disconnected after the town’s aldermen adopted a new policy to increase tax collections.
“It’s a tax collection tool,” said West Jefferson Town Manager Brantley Price about the new policy during the regular meeting of the town’s board of aldermen Monday night at town hall.
The West Jefferson Board of Aldermen adopted the policy on a 3-1 vote.
Aldermen Stephen Shoemaker, Tom Hartman and Lester Mullis voted to adopt the policy. Alderman Calvin Green voted against. Alderman Dr. Brett Summey was not in attendance at the meeting.
The new policy allows the town to disconnect water and sewer service to town residents and businesses that have failed to pay taxes on their real and personal property. However, prior to the disconnection, the customer can request a hearing with the town manager to work out payment arrangements.
During discussions about the new policy between the aldermen, Price and Town Attorney David Paletta, Shoemaker described it as “leverage” for the town’s tax collection efforts.
“It seems to me like we need some leverage,” said Shoemaker.
However, Green had doubts about the need for the disconnection policy.
“It seems to me like we’re already collecting taxes…our tax collection (rate) is very, very high…if (a tax bill) gets up to $3, $4 or $5,000, we got leverage anyway,” said Green, noting the town currently has a collection rate of approximately 98 percent.
When the policy was opened up for discussion by the aldermen, Hartman asked if those people or businesses facing disconnection would be looked at “on a case-by-case basis…(and) does that mean you’re going to treat some people differently than others?”
Town Attorney Paletta, addressing the aldermen, said, “It’s hard to be fair, but sensitive.”
While Price didn’t specifically address Hartman’s question, he did say that the policy will help in the town’s collection efforts with “businesses” that are two or three years behind.
West Jefferson Public Works Director David Hamilton had a question about the potential “health” concerns of disconnecting water and sewer service.
“We tried this a long time ago. The health department got involved and told us to never do (disconnecting service) again.
Paletta answered that question saying the health department has no authority over how a town can enforce its policies regarding disconnections of service.
Alderman Lester Mullis asked if a reconnection fee would have to be paid if a customer’s service was disconnected. Price said yes.
As the discussion wound down, Hartman voiced his belief about Price’s ability to administrate the policy fairly.
“I think the manager of the town would make the right decision if a decision is to be made,” he said.
West Jefferson Mayor Dale Baldwin concurred with Hartman.
“I really think Brantley would be fair, he would handle it right,” said Baldwin.
Shoemaker summed up his thoughts about the proposed policy.
“It’s a sticky subject, but it’s not fair for those who pay their taxes,” he said.
Hartman made the motion to adopt the policy. It was seconded by Shoemaker.
After the vote, Price told the aldermen, “I’ll talk to you before I do anything.”
The aldermen also heard from Haskell McGuire, the chairman of the Ashe County ABC board.
He reported that sales for the first quarter totaled $362,267, which was down 4.6 percent from the same quarter last year.
McGuire also said the store contributed $10,500 to the town, up from the $7,500 amount the previous year.
The annual audit of the ABC store’s year-end financials had been completed, Haskell said.
“It was a very good audit…there were no negative findings at all…a clean bill of health,” said McGuire.
He said the store is expecting an “operational audit” sometime in the near future.
The aldermen also adopted the High Country Hazard Mitigation Plan, which would make the town eligible for federal assistance if a disaster were to strike.
Public Works Director Hamilton offered the aldermen his report.
He said there had been an issue with air in the water lines. He said the problem was a new pump on one of the wells that pulled water at a greater number of gallons per minute than the well could sustain. The new pump was rated at a higher GPM than the pump it replaced. Hamilton said the pump was modified to address the problem.
Maintenance Director Eric Miller offered his monthly report to the aldermen.
Miller reported the maintenance department is still working on replacing water meters and finishing up leaf collection efforts.
“We’re tired of seeing leaves…we’ve got a long way to go,” said Miller.
Manager Price in his report to the aldermen said the town had collected $708,132 in taxes levied so far this year, or 65.4 percent of the total levy.
He also reported the annual audit of the Tourism Development Authority was complete and the town’s would be completed by the end of November.
Price also said the Hometown Christmas in West Jefferson would be held on Nov. 23, with hot chocolate and the annual tree lighting.
Alderman Green asked Price if there were any plans to install frostproof hydrants at the newly-renovated intersections in downtown.
“If we spent all this money on the intersections, we want to keep them pretty,” said Green.
Price said he was looking into installing a water source for the streetscape intersections.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, West Jefferson resident Mike Williams addressed the aldermen.
He started saying that establishing a disconnection policy of water and sewer services for residents and businesses with unpaid taxes was “unethical and immoral.”
“It shouldn’t be associated with anything else…it’s the wrong way to get things done,” said Williams about the new policy.
He then went on to praise the West Jefferson Police Department and asked the aldermen to consider increasing the officers’ salaries to keep them from seeking employment elsewhere.
Williams suggested a recent payment to the town of $100,000 from a settlement go towards increasing the officers’ pay.
Shoemaker then addressed Williams’ comments about the new tax collection policy.
“It’s not unethical or immoral…if we didn’t collect taxes, we’d have to shut the doors…I’m going to sleep well tonight,” said Shoemaker.
“It wasn’t my intent to impugn anyone’s character…but you can make mistakes,” said Williams.
Mullis said during aldermen comments he is still hearing a lot of positive things about West Jefferson. “It’s make me really proud,” said Mullis.
West Jefferson Police Department Chief Jeff Rose offered the aldermen his department’s monthly report.
There were 225 calls dispatched, 23 auto collisions were investigated, 22 charges were issued on citation and 19 people were arrested on charges that included DWI, larceny, assault and drug-related crimes.
Rose also said one of the department’s detectives had drawn 43 warrants on several suspects for larcenies and stolen property.
At the conclusion of the regular meeting, the aldermen had a closed session to discuss a legal matter and then held a working meeting on a proposed new sign ordinance.