Until late last year, Forsyth residents could go to the police department after City Hall had closed, pay their bill and a reconnect fee, and their power would be restored.
Additionally, the city administrator and city clerk could approve grace periods longer than seven days to prevent disconnections for city-offered cable and utilities. Some residents went straight to the mayor with their requests.
Perks of small town, city-offered services -- and their pitfalls -- were part of a Monroe County Sheriff’s Office investigation into Forsyth’s cable and utility billing.
The investigation that began late last year was spurred by allegations that the city’s mayor hadn’t paid his cable and utility bills for several months -- accruing a balance of $2,265 -- but his services were not disconnected.
After reviewing the result of the investigation, District Attorney Richard Milam decided not to file criminal charges against Mayor John Howard II.
Several recommendations were included in the sheriff’s office report, including a suggestion that a “keystroke audit trail” be added to the computerized accounting system.
The investigation found that no operations manual or procedural handbook exists to give guidelines on how to handle customer service accounts, non-payment situations, special arrangements, billing, payment processing and service disconnects, according to the report.
City Councilman Julius Stroud said the investigation has caused council members to consider making changes.
“We have some preliminary thoughts,” Stroud said, “but as far as the whole council sitting down and making changes, we haven’t done that yet.”
About 10 Georgia cities offer cable service. Many more provide residents with electricity, water and sewer services, said Brian Wallace, a Georgia Municipal Association spokesman.
Generally, cities get into the cable business because they receive complaints from residents about poor customer service or the overall available service from private providers, Wallace said.
Stroud said Forsyth has long wanted to get out of the cable business and has searched for a buyer for its cable system.
“It is an antiquated system,” he said.
Police Chief Keith Corley said dispatchers still take after-hours customer service calls for the city’s cable service and other utilities, even though they no longer handle reconnections.
“We give the citizens of Forsyth somewhere to call,” he said.
The calls don’t impede emergency calls, Corley said.
The Telegraph reviewed the sheriff’s office’s investigative report, completed earlier this year, after filing an Open Records Act request.
Here’s what the report showed:
While some people request extensions directly through the mayor, he doesn’t have access to the computerized billing system.
No evidence was found that the mayor sought special treatment.
“Courtesy accounts” are offered to city offices and some local businesses for cable service. Courtesy account holders do not receive overdue notices, are not charged late fees and aren’t subject to disconnection.
There are no courtesy accounts for utilities.
Cut-off lists for utility accounts weren’t printed for three months in 2013 due to staffing shortages.
City Clerk Janice Hall first brought the mayor’s unpaid utility account to light. She told the city administrator, Thomas White. Then White told council members.
Hall said she sent the mayor an email Nov. 13, 2013, to tell him his name was on the utility cut-off list, and she removed his name because he was the mayor.
Howard told deputies he didn’t pay his bills because he was “embarrassed about losing his job” and because his daughter died. “Finding another job and paying his bills was the last thing on his mind at that time.”
Attempts to reach Howard were unsuccessful Friday.
Hall said Tye Howard, the mayor who preceded John Howard II, set up a courtesy account for his home as a way to monitor the city’s cable service during his term. A charge of $70.12 was written off monthly.
Tye Howard didn’t request special treatment for utility service. Records show the former mayor paid for satellite TV for the entire time he had the courtesy cable account.
A customer service clerk told deputies she assumed John Howard II would be entitled to a courtesy cable account because the prior mayor had one. She added data into the computer to make the current mayor exempt from late fees and past due notices.
Howard, who admitted knowing he had overdue balances, paid $2,120 toward the outstanding bills days before the investigation began. That left him with a small balance.
Investigators also noted that receipts aren’t always submitted for charges on city credit cards.
In response, they recommended that the mayor and city council members’ oath of office be altered to add language that requires them to make timely payments “of all financial obligations and debt to all governmental entities, as well as financial transactions involving the receipt of city-supplied services, official city business and city-issued credit cards.”
They also recommended that advance approval be required for all expenditures and that receipts be required, along with signed expense reports, for all charges on city credit cards.
Deputies still are investigating whether a former city council member, who hasn’t been identified by officials, interfered with collection practices in 2011.
That investigation was spawned by information uncovered during the initial probe, said Allison Selman-Willis, sheriff’s office spokeswoman.
The ongoing investigation is not related to the mayor and is expected to last several more weeks, Selman-Willis said.