Oklahoma City has a $5.5 million hole in its finances, thanks in part to a taxpayer rebellion over trash collection that began in 1994.
Customers who receive trash service but are not on city water owe the money. Their delinquent utility accounts include penalties for nonpayment.
The city is asking the state Legislature for authority to place liens on property to collect the money.
Back in 1994, city council leaders agreed that concerns about public health justified adding about 14,000 rural households to trash routes.
Upset residents brought 105 new trash carts to city hall Aug. 30, 1994, to demonstrate their displeasure with being charged $10.49 per month for weekly trash pickup.
They said they were being forced to pay, whether they wanted the service or not.
“When the city began service to the more rural parts of the city, a significant portion of the rural customers chose to boycott the service,” said Debbie Ragan, utilities spokeswoman.
“Boycotting,” she said, “included refusal to pay.”
Today, weekly trash service is $19.06 per month. There are 2,409 overdue “waterless” accounts — that is, customers who don't get city water.
That includes 971 customers who owe $1,000 or more. Of those, 149 owe more than $10,000. Those 971 customers owe $5.1 million of the total.
Customers who don't get city water generally are in rural areas.
City officials said they usually can get the attention of customers with overdue utility bills by threatening to shut off the water — but those customers are in the more densely developed parts of town.
Edmond officials say they can cut electrical service when utility customers don't pay their bills. Norman officials say taking away the trash cart usually gets a customer's attention.
But Ragan said taking away the trash cart risks leaving garbage scattered around, a situation that can attract vermin.
Oklahoma City is adamantly against letting that happen.
Besides, Ragan said, over time the rebellious “feeling has subsided for most rural customers.”
Ragan said the city has tried collection agencies to get what it's owed.
Seeking new authority
A bill first introduced in the 2013 Legislature would give cities authority to place a lien on property when utility bills are four or more months overdue.
The measure would provide for notice and hearings.
If the cost of utility service, the city's expenses and interest charges remain unpaid, they could be collected with overdue taxes and other charges when the property sells.
Oklahoma City says the 2,409 delinquent “waterless” accounts owe $5,497,856.84.
A typical residence on well water in rural northeast Oklahoma City pays $19.06 per month for trash service.
A typical residence on city water pays the same for trash service, plus water and sewer fees of about $25. Both pay a $5.53 drainage fee.