CAIRO, Ga. — City officials soon may be facing a class-action lawsuit regarding utilities bill late fees, which were apparently incorrectly assessed, if customers are not refunded.

Cindy Williams, former president of the Grady County branch of the NAACP, urged the city council to come up with a plan to compensate residents who have incurred what she calls "erroneous charges" as soon as possible.

"I see legal intervention as a last resort," she said. "We expect to see some movement in a positive direction soon, or a class-action suit is imminent."

In practice, the city collects a 10 percent late fee on utilities bills 10 days after the bill date.

However, for several decades the code ordinances stated that late fees should be applied in relation to the due date, not the bill date.

Williams initially brought the issue to the city council's attention in February, and Tuesday she deflected criticism that there wouldn't be a problem if customers paid their bills on time.

"He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone," she said. "Even after your stone is cast, you will still have an issue that is not going away."

Using utilities bills dating back as far as 1987, City Manager Chris Addleton has noted that Cairo's longtime billing policy has mentioned only the bill date in relation to the application of penalties.

Addleton believes that when the city's ordinances were consolidated by the Municipal Code Corporation in 1984 they may have mistakenly incorporated a 1975 water and sewer ordinance as a part of the utilities ordinance and confused the language regarding billing and due dates.

Research into the city's billing practices dating back to August 1947 show that penalties were only attached to the bill date until the water and sewer ordinance was updated in 1975, first introducing language referencing the due date.

A revision to the code of ordinances was made in September 2018 to eliminate the apparent conflict.

At a city council meeting last month, Addleton explained that the billing policy had been revised in August 1991 and only referenced the bill date, but the change was never entered into the code of ordinances.

The city manager said the question before the council is whether the minutes of the 1991 meeting can override the language in the code of ordinances.

Citing the city's code of ordinances, Addleton noted that the governing body has the authority to fix the rates and conditions of utilities services by "proper motion or resolution entered in its minutes," which should have made the language in the 1991 minutes an active policy regardless of whether it was entered into the code of ordinances, a view shared by Council member Jimmy Douglas.

But in Williams' view, the minutes do not override the language stated in the code of ordinances

"The city ordinance is the law by which local city policy is based upon," she said. "This issue is not whether an error has been made, but how to correct the error that was made."

City attorney Thomas Lehman offered to speak with the Georgia Municipal Association to determine how to resolve the dispute between policy as set forth in minutes and ordinances and return to the council with a response.

Williams stated that while she has had productive conversations with both Addleton and Mayor Booker Gainor, she was disappointed that the council had not reached a consensus on how to proceed with the issue.

"I have been patiently waiting to give the council time to come up with a viable and reasonable solution to make amends to the taxpaying citizens of Cairo who have been wrongly charged," she said.

Williams suggested that the council members either do what she says is the right thing soon or face consequences in the next election.

As an example, Williams said that she recently decided to step down from her role in the local NAACP due to work obligations.

"If you, the members of this council, cannot do what is in the best interest of your constituencies, then I urge you to do the same," she said. 

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