Hounded by City Hall

I have let this one sit around on my to-blog list too long. Earlier this month, the outgoing Portland city auditor released a report on the city's debt collection processes. Her conclusion: They're chaotic and, well, mean.

The City’s inconsistent and uncoordinated approach to collecting taxes, fines, and fees from residents and businesses can be confusing. It can also be harmful for some Portlanders, especially those with limited proficiency in English or who can’t pay their bills. The City needs to fund the services it provides, but as a public entity, it should also ensure it does so fairly and does not cause harm to the people it serves....

People may have multiple overdue bills with the City, which can lead to multiple referrals from different bureaus to the City’s collection agency. Portlanders don’t always understand or have the skills and access to set up payment plans or negotiate fee waivers, even when they are eligible. Without a centralized place to go for help and uneven access to hardship accommodations, the people who most need assistance may not get it.

Our audit found that bureaus use different strategies and tactics to collect money owed to the City. Each program offered some hardship accommodations to people who have difficulty paying, but there was no central guidance or standards for bureaus to follow. The City’s decentralized structure means that no one entity is in charge of making sure the different programs work together to achieve City goals. We recommend the City develop Citywide collection standards to improve collections practices.

"No one is in charge." Ain't that the Rose City way.

Governments require funding to operate but should collect money from residents and businesses using a process that is clear, fair, and makes it as easy as possible for people to meet their obligations while recognizing that some people may struggle to pay. The City of Portland does not consistently meet those standards. There is no one entity within the City that oversees collection methods, and no one place for Portlanders to go for help with unpaid bills.

Instead, the City uses a patchwork approach, with most of its collections work done in isolation by each billing bureau. This siloed approach can contribute to a spiral into burdensome debt even though each of these collection efforts is being carried out by the same government. Some bureaus used aggressive tactics or tacked on fees the longer bills went unpaid. Others were more lax. Someone may be behind in payments to more than one bureau, each operating under different policies. Unpaid debt is eventually transferred to a collection agency, which adds a charge of 23 percent of the amount due, plus interest. The City Attorney’s Office sometimes collects unpaid debt on larger accounts.

Consultants recommended the City consolidate collections in both 2005 and 2014, citing inefficiencies and customer service gaps as reasons to do so. In 2005, the City began to consolidate some aspects of City collections, but later reversed course. City officials we spoke to disagreed about whether collections should be consolidated, and the audit did not evaluate whether consolidating City collections was the best course of action.

Most of the people who work at City Hall are, how shall I put this delicately, arrogant jackasses. I don't need consultants or an auditor to tell me where things stand: God help you if you owe them a nickel.


  1. This is rich when the city itself does not fulfill its promise to provide services. My particular peeve is with BoT and their street sweeping program. Basically, it's crap. One bureau encourages tree planting without warning residents as to the responsibilities regarding tree limbs, tree leaves, and tree roots. The homeowner finds out about those when the city determines that they are not in compliance and directs the homeowner to rectify the non-compliance with their own funds. But, the city does not uphold their part of the deal and does not sweep the streets clean because of all the cars parked at the curbs. When the homeowner calls to point this out and ask when sweepers will be on their street, they are told that they don't inform residents because they don't want folks throwing their trash into the streets for the sweepers. So, the city uses legal action to threaten residents while dodging their own responsibilities and shifting them to the homeowners. A bunch of shitheads.


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