The Lawrence County Commission has threatened to discontinue garbage pickup in Courtland and North Courtland after March 31 because it says too many residents of those towns are failing to pay for the service.
The county says it is stopping service for all residents of the towns, rather than just for those individuals who fail to pay, due to a concern that people whose garbage pickup is terminated will dump trash outside garbage bins or in neighbors’ bins.
Bobby Burch, Lawrence County Commission chairman, said about $40,000 in garbage fees have not been paid, and almost all of the overdue payments are from the two towns. The county delivered a 90-day notice to Courtland Mayor Linda Peebles and North Courtland Mayor Riely Evans that the garbage service will be terminated.
Burch believes the nonpayment problem stems from Courtland and North Courtland residents being on Courtland Electric for their electricity service. Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp. contracts with the county to bill for garbage pickup. For Joe Wheeler customers, the $17 garbage fee is included on monthly utility bills, and if they don’t pay the bill in full each month they risk having their electricity cut off.
Joe Wheeler EMC just sends the garbage fee bill to customers of Courtland Electric, who are billed separately by Courtland Electric. Burch said residents know their power can’t be cut off by Joe Wheeler, so some simply ignore the garbage bill. JWEMC receives $1.37 per bill sent out, Burch said.
“Joe Wheeler doesn’t serve those areas for its power,” he said. “Those residents are getting the Joe Wheeler bill and throwing it in the trash. About 99% of those with delinquent accounts are from Courtland and North Courtland. Why aren’t people paying? I guess these people are wondering what happens if they don’t pay. ‘What are the repercussions?’”
In December, the county responded to the nonpayment issues by removing the free rolloff dumpsters from the two towns, a move District 1 Commissioner Amard Martin calls discriminatory. District 1 in the northern part of the county is predominantly Black.
Martin said one of the problems lies in the county’s solid waste department needing to update its customer database. He said some deceased people are getting billed and some residential and business customers are not.
“We’re not following our own policy on delinquent accounts. Pulling the rolloffs was a bad idea,” said Martin, who took office in November. “The majority of people in Courtland and North Courtland are low income and elderly. They need to be treated like any other person in Lawrence County. It seems to me ... that is discrimination.”
Before removing the two rolloff dumpsters, the Lawrence County Solid Waste Department stationed eight rolloff dumpsters across the county so residents didn’t have to make the drive to the Morris Farms Landfill north of Courtland.
Paying customers penalized?
Martin said the $40,000 deficit “didn’t happen overnight,” and that it’s unfair to penalize Courtland and North Courtland residents who are paying their garbage fees.
“I will support the mayors of North Courtland and Courtland 100% on this issue. The county is wrong in this. You want to take my money and then cancel my contract,” Martin said.
The solid waste issue is not new to Lawrence County, Burch said. He said when he took office in 2010, he discovered the county was owed about $60,000 from delinquent garbage accounts, almost all from the Courtland and North Courtland areas.
Burch said the County Commission switched billing contractors from Joe Wheeler to West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority for about four or five years. He said about $22,000 of the debt was recovered when the commission went to the District Attorney’s Office and filed claims against those non-payers. The other $38,000 was “wiped off the books,” Burch said.
“A few years ago, West Morgan-East Lawrence ended their billing contract with us, saying it wasn’t worth their time,” he said. “So, we signed a new contract with Joe Wheeler.”
Peebles said the county is unfairly targeting her town of 900 people despite only 12% of the households there being delinquent on their garbage accounts. She said she received a certified letter from county attorney Dave Martin stating the town’s contract with the county involving garbage service will end March 31.
“It’s the county’s responsibility to collect their garbage bills,” she said. “I informed the county we don’t have the staff and resources, ability to do the billing for them. We’ve been in meetings to try to work this out with the County Commission.”
She said she is unsure why some residents are not paying their bills.
“The town of Courtland is not responsible for that,” she said. “The town of Courtland has nothing to do with this. It’s not the town that owes the money. It is a small portion of the individuals who live in Courtland. We just want what is fair and right and be treated like everyone else in the county.”
Evans did not return multiple calls seeking comment on the issue.
Burch said taking away the non-paying customers’ garbage carts is “not as simple as it might seem.”
He said he anticipates some of those residents will begin using garbage cans of the neighbors who are paying and some trash might end up in ditches and streets if those cans are full.
“It’s nasty,” he said. “Coming out of a pandemic when there is ever a time when we need to be clean, we have this. On their side of the fence, everything is about the rolloffs (being removed). If they want to dump their garbage, the (Morris Farms) landfill is not very far away. They can show their driver’s license and dump at no cost.”
The landfill is 8½ miles from the square in Courtland.
Town Creek program
Burch said he hopes the county and the two municipalities can agree on a new payment method.
“I’m very optimistic talking with the mayors of Courtland and North Courtland and talking with our people,” he said.
Peebles said she’s hopeful the issue can be resolved.
“We’re still having open negotiations with the commission. I’m willing to work with them if they are willing to work with me,” she said.
Peebles said she may have to privately contract garbage collection for her town. It would cost more, she said, but she has few options.
Another option is to follow the lead of Town Creek, which in April 2021 began collecting its own garbage and hauling it to the landfill, 14 miles from downtown Town Creek.
When Town Creek made the change, its residents were paying a $14 per month garbage fee to the county. In December, the county upped the fee to $17. Town Creek charges its 450 residential customers $15 a month. Mayor Mike Parker said the town received a $120,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Facilities grant and added $40,000 from the town’s reserve account to purchase a truck, equipment, tools and a storage facility.
“It’s going great,” Parker said last week. “We’re only picking up one day a week and making a little money and now our citizens are saving money since the county has raised its rates.”
He said the town’s garbage truck is too small to take on North Courtland’s and Courtland’s service. “But we would be open to expanding if we had a bigger truck,” he said. “But not right now.”