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Buffalo is owed $11.5 million in overdue and uncollected water and sewer bills because of "helter-skelter" bill collecting, the city comptroller said Tuesday.

The overdue bills, some 10 years old and totaling $13 million at one point, were allowed to stack up because the city did not always send collection letters or threaten to shut off water service, the comptroller said.

In the last two years, though, the city has tried to remedy the problem by using a centralized collections operation and hiring a private collections company. Together, they have brought in $5 million in overdue revenue.

Despite those efforts, City Hall still is owed about $11.5 million, and property owners continue to fall behind in their quarterly payments to the city.

City Comptroller Joel A. Giambra, in a new audit of the Division of Water, reveals a collections system once hampered by a lack of follow-through.

"For a long time, the city's approach was helter-skelter," Giambra said. "We now have a much stronger handle on collecting accounts receivable."

The audit, covering water department operations from July 1993 to last December, showed that:

One-third of all the property owners who owe money to the city never received a collection letter from the city; of the people who do receive letters, about 40 percent agreed to pay off their bills, but only half of them did so; the water division has the right to shut off service, but did so in only 20 percent of the cases; most of the overdue bills -- about $9 million -- date back three years or more, and some go back to the mid-1980s.

The Masiello administration has already hired Amana Capital Corp., a local collections company, to help in recovering some of the outstanding bills.

"We made it a priority to collect as much as possible," said Joseph N. Giambra, the city's public works commissioner.

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