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Ways sought to collect unpaid fees Options considered include central billing

Deadbeats owe the city millions of dollars in unpaid taxes and fees, and Mayor Byron W. Brown is launching an offensive to find ways to collect some of the money.

Brown has put First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey in charge of a long-term effort that will begin today, when officials from 16 departments and divisions meet in City Hall for a rare Saturday brainstorming session.

CitiStat, Buffalo's new accountability system, has found that the problems go beyond property taxes, water bills and garbage user fees.

Outstanding demolition fees, for example, total $12.8 million.

The city imposes the fees on owners of structures that require emergency demolition.

Other uncollected fees include $904,000 for boarding up properties.

Even some charges that would appear easy to collect have not been paid, including $115,000 owed by businesses that arrange for special garbage collections.

Casey noted that 16 divisions play some role in billings or collections, which might account for part of the problem.

One solution could be consolidating tasks under one office.

Even though the city has a collections unit, Casey said, under the system the Brown administration inherited, too many departments might be involved in dealing with fees.

"Any department that touches a bill is going to be involved in this," Casey said of the new effort. "There's a lot of money the city is owed, and we need to find ways to get it."

Expecting the effort to generate millions of dollars in immediate revenue would be unrealistic, Casey emphasized.

But in the short term, he said, the city could recover hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In addition to consolidating billing, officials will consider the following:

*Seeking state permission to add some unpaid city fees to property tax bills. This would allow the city to seize such properties and sell them through foreclosure auctions if charges remain unpaid for lengthy periods.

*Finding ways to use state efficiency grants to pay for system upgrades that could improve collections.

*Looking at staffing issues. Both Casey and Brown raised the possibility that shortages of clerks and other support staffers in some units could be undermining collections efforts.

"We'll be looking at any technology that could be helpful, but we would also be receptive to adding some new people if we need to do that," Brown said.

City officials also want to make sure that bills for all city fees are being sent in a timely fashion.

Casey is looking into reports of past billing backlogs in some divisions.

"We're not out to embarrass anyone," Casey said. "But in the end, we need to collect more of this money and be more efficient. And we're not afraid to ruffle some feathers."


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