Council defends use of debt collectors

Cork’s county manager Martin Riordan has defended a controversial decision to employ a private debt collection company to recoup €1.8m owed to the county council in refuse collection charges.

Angry councillors said they were left “red-faced” as they were not informed Stubbs Gazette had been employed by the local authority to collect monies owed by 6,800 householders.

The debts date back to pre-Sept 2010 when the local authority disposed of its refuse collection service to private contractors Country Clean.

Standing orders were suspended at County Hall yesterday when Cllr John O’Sullivan (FG) criticised council management for not giving householders a chance to pay before handing over files to Stubbs Gazette.

The FG councillor said he had contacted the company seeking a repayment plan on behalf of a number of people, but the company would not deal with him because of the Data Protection Act.

Cllr O’Sullivan said the son of a 93-year-old woman in a nursing home got “the same treatment” when he contacted Stubbs Gazette.

The councillor also claimed people were getting bills even though they had previously paid up.

Cllr Frank O’Flynn (FF) said: “I never saw so many people so irate. I’d love to know how much Stubbs Gazette is taking for this. The mention of the words ‘Stubbs Gazette’ drove people absolutely crazy.”

Cllr Noel McCarthy (Lab) branded the move as “an absolute disgrace.” He said the agency wasn’t just sending out bills but phoning people, demanding they pay up. “We councillors knew nothing about this and that’s embarrassing,” he said.

Cllr Christopher O’Sullivan (FF) said the council had showed a lack of sympathy and maintained many of those sent demands had already paid.

Cllr Kevin Murphy (FG) claimed: “This is a huge cock-up and councillors were left red-faced as they were not notified this was happening. In some cases the database is not accurate as people who have been billed have receipts to show they’ve paid.”

Mayor Cllr Barbara Murray (FG) felt “somebody had jumped the gun” by employing the debt collection agency.

But Mr Riordan said he “was somewhat surprised” at councillors’ reaction.

“If somebody paid up and got a demand then we will apologise but I don’t think that’s the case. These are people who decided not to pay their bills.”

He revealed, as part of the sell-off terms, County Clean issued the demands for the outstanding money owed to the council in Oct 2010. No further bills were issued after that date until Stubbs Gazette got involved around 10 days ago.

Mr Riordan said already €19,000 had been paid by defaulters. “This is normal debt collection. I’m duty bound as manager to collect that debt. We have used debt collection agencies before. I don’t believe it’s extreme action. I urge them (defaulters) to enter payment arrangements as soon as possible. A lot of people probably felt the council was going to walk away from (chasing) the debt,” he said.

He said interest was not charged on outstanding bills and refused to divulge what percentage Stubbs Gazette would receive.

“I won’t clarify their percentage because that’s commercially sensitive information. We’re now in the process of collecting from difficult core debtors,” Mr Riordan said.

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