Conservation is supposed to be the name of the game in Columbia Countys stormwater utility, a two-year-old fee designed to help improve and preserve stormwater retention systems and natural waterways.
But conservation also is responsible for the countys failure to pursue the relative handful of customers who havent been paying their fees.
The legal term is conservation of resources. Under that doctrine, the courts hold off on smaller issues while related larger claims are settled. For example, a particular court may put prosecution of speeders on hold while awaiting the results of a challenge to the use of radar.
In Columbia County, this means there is no prosecution of residents who fail to pay their stormwater utility fees - even though the amount of unpaid fees now hovers close to $100,000.
Ironically, those non-payers arent being pursued, county officials say, because of some residents who dont want anyone to pay they fee. Theyre the citizens who have filed suit against the county, contending the fee is an illegal tax.
County Commission Chairman Barry Fleming, himself an attorney, says the county shouldnt take fee scofflaws to court until the overall legal challenge to the stormwater utility is settled. That way, taxpayers arent footing the bill for multiple fights at the same time.
Meanwhile, the case crawls through court by way of dueling motions and briefs. Early on, the county won a small victory when it had the case shifted to friendlier ground in federal court. Since then, Fleming says, Weve been pleased with the initial rulings from the federal court.
Thats all well and good, but the longer the case drags out, the more than non-payers bills will pile up. The biggest unpaid bill is that of the Columbia County school system, whose charges now approach $40,000 - more than a third of the total unpaid fees.
School Superintendent Tommy Price says once credits for education programs and commercial-grade retention ponds on school property are worked out, the school system will pay the accrued fees.
Other unpaid fees wont be so easy to collect. Time has a way of letting those slip away, and only the largest will be worth the countys diligent pursuit. The case needs to be settled, on way or the other, so that everyone in the stormwater district can pay - or, in the unlikely event the court strikes it down, that everyone gets a refund.
A final note: It bears keeping in mind that the unpaid stormwater fees - running about 15 percent of the total due - are in line with the roughly 12 percent in unpaid water bills for any given time. The difference: Those who dont pay for water can lose their service.
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