State Politics

Gov. Scott signs bill allowing Manatee to create liens on property with unpaid utility bills

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott changed a somewhat bizarre aspect of Manatee County with a swipe of his pen this week.

Most Florida counties can put a lien on properties when owners don't pay their water and sewage utility bills. But because Manatee County's utility system was created under a special act by the Legislature, the county didn't have the same ability.

Instead, the utility system would have to absorb those costs and pass them along to paying customers through higher rates.

"The issue came to light -- and consistently frustrated County Commissioners -- whenever uncollectible accounts were brought to them for write-off approval," Nick Azzara, Manatee County spokesman, wrote in an email. "To give you an idea of the magnitude of this problem, the utility system has written off more than $6 million in bad debt over the past five years."

The new law is the start of the process, not the end. Before Manatee County can officially place liens on properties to encourage utility bill payment, the County Commission has to incorporate the new law's language into the county ordinance and establish policy and procedures. Commissioners began implementation steps

at the end of April.

The state law does not allow the foreclosure of properties solely based on a utility lien.

"The whole process will be done during regular meetings, and we're hoping the public will provide input to us through that process," Azzara said.

State Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, sponsored the legislation, which passed nearly unanimously in the Legislature before Scott signed it on Wednesday.

Azzara said it's been a legislative priority for the county for several years, and he's glad to see it finally passed.

"Our commissioners saw this as a fairness issue and felt that the majority of our utility customers shouldn't have to foot the bill for those who don't pay their water bill," Azzara said. "Rep. Boyd understood it as a fairness issue and agreed to sponsor the bill early on. We're truly appreciative of his efforts to see this bill through a difficult process."

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055 or at kirby@bradenton.com. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby

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