CAIRO — City officials are still debating how to proceed with a complaint regarding incorrectly assessed late fees on utilities bills and if individuals who were incorrectly charged should be compensated in any form.
According to the complaint, for several decades the city had been applying a 10 percent late fee 10 days after the bill date instead of the due date, which was in conflict with the code of ordinances until a revision in September 2018.
A cutoff date 20 days following the bill date instead of the due date was also in conflict with the city code.
City Manager Chris Addleton believes that when the city's ordinances were consolidated by the Municipal Code Corporation in 1984 they may have mistakenly incorporated a 1975 water and sewer ordinance as a part of the utilities ordinance and confused the language regarding billing and due dates.
Research into the city's billing practices dating back to August 1947 show that penalties were only attached to the bill date until the water and sewer ordinance was updated in 1975, first introducing language referencing the due date.
The issue was initially brought to the city council's attention in February by Cindy Williams, president of the Grady County branch of the NAACP.
At Monday's meeting of the Cairo City Council, Addleton said that the billing policy was revised in August 1991 and only referenced the bill date, but the change was never entered into the code of ordinances.
Throughout all of the years, however, the city's billing practices never changed in effect.
Using utilities bills dating back as far as 1987, Addleton noted that the city's longtime billing policy has only ever mentioned the bill date in relation to the application of penalties.
"I don't think anybody was looking at the ordinance. They're looking at their bill," Addleton said. "We've consistently billed this way for over 30 years."
The city manager said the question before the council is whether the minutes of the 1991 meeting can override the language in the code of ordinances.
Citing the city's code of ordinances, Addleton noted that the governing body has the authority to fix the rates and conditions of utilities services by "proper motion or resolution entered in its minutes."
"That's what happened in 1991," he said.
That should had made the language in the 1991 minutes an active policy regardless of whether it was entered into the code of ordinances, Addleton said.
According to city attorney Thomas Lehman, meeting minutes cannot be used to override an ordinance, but they can be used to explain the intent of how an ordinance is applied.
In Lehman's view, if a policy is included in the minutes, it is a resolution and has to comply with the code of ordinances, which in turn must comply with the city's charter, which itself must comply with state and federal law.
"My feeling is that the minutes that you have were inconsistent — if that's what the policy was — with the ordinance," he said. "Does that mean the ordinance is controlling? Yes, it's controlling, but I suspect I could go through these ordinances and find more than one place where your policies and what we find in the minutes don't comply with the ordinance to a T."
Lehman offered to speak with the Georgia Municipal Association to determine how to resolve the dispute between policy as set forth in minutes and ordinances and return to the council with a response in about two weeks.
Mayor Booker Gainor said he believes if there is language in the code of ordinances that conflicts with the minutes, the ordinance would take precedence.
"According to GMA, the only thing that supersedes an ordinance is state law and federal law, not minutes," the mayor said.
Council member Jimmy Douglas disagreed, saying the city's billing practices have remained consistent and are stated on customers' bills.
In any case, Douglas continued, the intent of the 1991 minutes was likely to update the policy, not revise the ordinance.
"Everybody else can have an opinion on the thing, but I think we've been billing people (correctly)," Douglas said. "They'd know what it was if they paid by the bill. There wouldn't be any question whatsoever."
Gainor suggested to the council that in the future any policies be cross-referenced with the code of ordinances to ensure there are no similar discrepancies.
"It's to keep us from being liable, but it's also keeping us accountable," the mayor said. "It's something we may need to review."