Updated: September 23, 2011 at 12:00 am
A collection agency hired by the city of Colorado Springs has resorted to strong-arm tactics to collect unpaid stormwater fees.
Sheriff’s deputies under a court order obtained by A-1 Collections Inc. went to several Ace Loans pawn shops Friday for the second time in recent weeks and emptied out their cash registers and safes.
“It’s the stormwater troopers,” Assistant Manager Charley Bliss said. “I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like that.”
The first time deputies went to the pawn shop on East Platte Place, Bliss said, they asked the owner to open his wallet.
“I said, ‘This is a shakedown,’” Bliss recalled.
It’s unclear how often the so-called till tap, a seizure of money by sheriff’s deputies to pay a judgment, is occurring for unpaid fees from the now-defunct Stormwater Enterprise.
A city spokesman didn’t know and referred questions to A-1 Collections, which declined to disclose that information.
“As a third party collection agency, which is what A-1 is, we are bound by both federal and state laws called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and we are not allowed to release information concerning accounts to anyone without their permission,” said Marie Kim, operations manager.
Kim also declined to say whether a till tap is frequently used to collect debts.
“That type of action is allowed once a judgment is obtained on any judgment in the state of Colorado. To say with what frequency it’s used, I really wouldn’t be able to report that to you,” she said.
City Councilwoman Angela Dougan, who opposes city efforts to collect delinquent stormwater fees through property taxes, said she was unaware of the agency’s tactics.
“I am absolutely amazed,” she said. “This is not the process that I was ever, ever told about that we would be doing to our business people and our citizens.”
The Civil Unit of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office will execute a writ issued by a judge and “take whatever cash is on the premises as ordered by the judge,” said Sgt. Mike Schaller, a department spokesman.
“The sheriff’s deputies aren’t collecting past-due stormwater fees,” he said. “What we are doing is we are executing that writ that is issued by a judge.”
Ace Loans owes about $15,000 in stormwater fees. It’s one of thousands of the property owners that owe the city a total of about $1.6 million in unpaid stormwater fees. Many residents and businesses refused to pay what they called an illegal tax.
Nathan Vatcher, a clerk at Ace Loans, said sheriff’s deputies refused to provide identification the first time, threatening instead to arrest him and the owner.
“They said, ‘We can arrest you for obstruction of justice,’” said Vatcher, adding that the two deputies who went to the store Friday were “more professional.”
Deputies took about $800 from the cash register and safe Friday and between $700 and $800 last month.
“The point I tried to make to them today was if you go into a flower shop and take all their cash, they can’t make change. If you take all the cash from a pawn shop, you’ve put them out of business,” said Bliss, the assistant manager. “That’s what we sell. If people come in for a loan, we have nothing to give them.”
News of the so-called till tap comes the same week the city sent about 17,000 letters to property owners it claims are delinquent. The letters have generated dozens of angry calls.
Homebuyer David Parris said he received a letter stating he owed $55.
“This fee would have been from 2009 or earlier. The problem is that I purchased this house in June of 2010, six months after City Council abolished this fee. They did not place a lien on the house for this money or else it would have showed up and been settled during the closing process,” Parris wrote in an email to The Gazette.
“While the fee they say I must pay really is not that big, I am more concerned that a lot of other new homeowners are being treated the same way.”
Dougan said she heard from a constituent who received a letter stating that he owed $10.60.
The man said he had never been contacted by the city or A-1 Collections before and thought he was paid up, said Dougan, who reluctantly advised him to pay the bill to avoid problems.
In August, the council voted to include unpaid stormwater fees in county property tax bills.
But the city’s proposal remains under discussion with County Treasurer Bob Balink, whose office collects property taxes.