Butler County residents will see unpaid utilities on property tax bills: What to know

Butler County will be including unpaid utilities on property taxes for those who have overdue balances, a signal that bill forgiveness happening throughout the region during the COVID-19 pandemic is ending.

Butler County Water & Sewer Director Martha Shelby recently received approval from the county commissioners to charge an estimated $93,000 to the tax bills of county water and sewer users who have not paid their delinquent bills. Past-due amounts added to taxes average around $300.

She told the Journal-News the number could decrease now that the process to collect via tax bills has begun. The second half tax bills will reflect the additional charges.

“Our first run revealed over 600 accounts in a past due status. Additional notifications were sent, communications were made regarding additional funding sources, and some payment plans were created, resulting in the current number of past due accounts being reduced to less than 180,” Shelby said. “Many of the accounts remaining on the list are vacant residential homes.”

Shelby said they have billed residents countywide $12.6 million through April. In 2019 before the pandemic descended she said they certified a total of $137,142 for 359 past due payments of the total $40.8 million billed.

Mike Stein, tax accounting manager for the county auditor, said they actually collected $109,608 from tax bills for utilities in 2019. He said it could be because people paid up before it got to the actual bill or didn’t pay at all.

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The practice was routine prior to the pandemic, when the economy went into a freefall, people lost jobs and were unable to pay their bills. The federal and state governments halted evictions and foreclosures and suspended disconnections for utilities during the height of the crisis last year. The state’s disconnection moratorium was for 3.5 months but the county extended it another two months.

Shelby said they did not send any bills to taxes last year.

“We just didn’t want to do it last year, we felt that there was so much in flux with the pandemic situation we just opted not to do it last year,” Shelby said. “There was a time when we couldn’t turn anybody’s water off but that was lifted. But that’s a separate procedure.”

She said after three months of non-payment they can shut someone’s water off and after two more notifications they go through the process of collecting via the tax bill, but “if we’ve turned their water off typically they become current very rapidly.” However most of the current delinquent accounts are vacant homes so there is no incentive for them to pay.

Part of the reason the county is opting to reinstate the practice is the commissioners have an $11.4 million program being administered by Supports to Encourage Low-income Families (SELF) that offers help for residents who can’t pay their rent or utilities.

SELF Executive Director Jeffrey Diver said since mid-April they have doled out the federal assistance to 117 households for a total of $454,899 in rent and utilities.

SELF can be reached via their website at selfhelps.org or 513-868-9300.

Commissioner Don Dixon said Shelby and her team are ensuring the bills of residents who may be truly hurting due to the effects of the pandemic, are not in the group of bills going to the county auditor’s office for certification to tax bills.

“There’s money out there for assistance and we’re trying to get those people in the right spot if they need assistance to get them some help,” Dixon said. “But we have some people who just for whatever reason won’t pay, you’ve got to do something.”

Hamilton Director of Business Services Nate Perry said they have continued to work with residents offering payment plans, directing them to SELF and other organizations for payment assistance, tips for conserving and other help throughout the pandemic.

The city is in the unique position of providing all utility services including electric, gas, water and sewer. He said they suspended disconnections at the start of the pandemic on March 16 and restarted on July 13, based on guidance from higher-up agencies like the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Public Utilities Commission.

He said they continue to work with residents with payment issues but he believes the crisis is over for most.

“I think from our end things are back to normal we monitor our arears, how far our customers are getting away from that due date,” Perry said. “During that time when we weren’t disconnecting we were seeing the balances pushed to the 60 to 120 days, but now through the first quarter of this year all those balances are what we were seeing pre-COVID.”

He said they could charge water and sewer bill delinquencies to taxes but don’t, they can’t with the other utilities. They use a collection agency.

Barb Bradley, interim finance director for Middletown, said they discontinued disconnections from May 9 through July 10 per the state’s order but then returned to normal procedures. The city also directs customers to SELF for assistance.

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