After Letting Water Bills Slide, Muskegon Heights Asks School District to Pay Up

Andrew Trzaska | April 22, 2013

The Muskegon Heights City Council is looking to collect past-due water bill payments from the local school district’s emergency financial manager.

Pass-due bills since the semi-dormant district stopped paying in February of 2011 total $6,617.62. The costs in question apply only to the district’s administration building, because charter operator Mosaica Education is current with payments on the Heights buildings it leases from the district.

The City of Muskegon Heights is just one of the many creditors that the emergency manager’s office has had to pay back since the board of education relinquished financial control of the district to the state.

The city has let the district’s bills go unpaid longer than is typical. The district technically could have had its water turned off last year if the city had followed their usual shutoff schedule.

“It’s not typical practice that we don’t shut water off when the bills have not been paid for that length of time,” said Henderson. “At this point we are not following our practices.”

The city was recently approached by the office of the emergency financial manager with an offer to take 30% off the total cost of the bill, but Henderson indicated that accepting that offer could set a bad precedent.

Henderson presented the information to the city council at their meeting Monday and urged an end to the delinquency.

“This is not good for our water fund to keep going in this direction,” said Henderson.

Councilman Watson’s comments took a moderate tone. He suggested waiting a few months to collect by taking it from the district’s upcoming tax dollar disbursement. Other council members, mayor and city manager appeared uneasy with the idea, as finance director Lori Doody could not confirm it was completely legal to do so.

Mayor Darrell Paige suggested that the city had given the district a fair amount of time to pay their bills.  He proposed that the district pay 70% now and pay the other 30% in coming months.

When asked by councilwoman Bonnie McGlothin if it was unfair to other city residents to allow the school district to have this leeway, Paige said that it was a special case and still represented good fiscal responsibility on the part of the city because all owed money would be collected.

As the discussion continued, Councilman Willie Watson presented a historical perspective at the meeting, turning the role of debtor back on the city:

“There was a time when we were in dire need,” said Watson. “There was a threat from Consumers [Energy] to shut off just about everything in the city.”

In the end, on a unanimous council vote, Henderson was instructed to send a formal communication to the emergency financial manager’s office, requiring payment in full within 30 days. Any delinquent payment penalties would apply to the school district.

Monday’s discussion comes only a few weeks after emergency financial manager Dr. Donald Weatherspoon demanded the city solve its looming water customer base shrinkage.  At the time, Weatherspoon stated that the loss of the Heights water system’s two largest customers in 2015, Fruitport and Norton Shores, would scare away other businesses and cause a collapse of the system’s viability.

Andrew Trzaska

103.7 “The Beat” – local government beat reporter and political analyst