When a part-time volunteer in Baltimore County's Office of Law collected an overdue $76,951 debt with a couple of phone calls, he wrote to County Executive Roger B. Hayden about his success, and eyes in county government began to open.
Retired but hardly retiring, William A. Spiegel claimed that Baltimore County was letting tens of thousands of dollars from overdue bills slip through its fingers and that the overburdened county law office was letting it happen.
He wanted Mr. Hayden to hire someone, maybe even Mr. Spiegel, to be a full-time bill collector, claiming that he had brought in more than $241,000 in seven months of volunteering 10 hours a week. The 57-year-old former customer service specialist for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said the job needed a human touch to find incorrect addresses and straighten out bureaucratic billing mix-ups.
County officials from Mr. Hayden down say Mr. Spiegel's claims are greatly exaggerated -- but they were impressed with his arguments and have acted to tighten bill collections.
With as many as 10 of the law office's 25 lawyers gone this year after a series of layoffs, resignations and firings, Mr. Spiegel said no one was trying to collect the old debts he was handling.
Kristina G. Smigosky, the lawyer assigned to supervise collections of nontax bills, was laid off in February, when Mr. Hayden eliminated 566 county jobs.
Mr. Spiegel stopped volunteering in September to go crabbing, he said, and hasn't been back since.
But the county took some of his messages to heart.
Kurt Louderback, chief of the revenue division of the county finance office, said he was impressed with what Mr. Spiegel had done, even though his own analysis indicated that the volunteer claimed credit for collecting a lot of money that would have come in anyway.
Mr. Louderback said he has assigned a full-time clerk to work on collecting large debts owed by builders and has hired a private collection agency to go after people who owe less than $100. The small debts weren't worth taking to court, he said. The county pays the agency $9 per transaction and has a guaranteed return of 58 percent of the money owed, he said.
In addition, Finance Director James R. Gibson Jr. has begun using computers to flag people who owe the county money but are also owed money by the county. Once they are identified, the county can withhold payments until the debt is satisfied.
"That's very effective," Mr. Louderback said. "Because of Mr. Spiegel's efforts, we had to take a hard look [at bill collecting]. . . . We've really tightened up."
Mr. Spiegel said that when he began volunteering in mid-1992, the bills were being ignored, left in stacks on the desks of already overburdened county lawyers.
Law office staff cuts have been so severe that Arnold Jablon, the county zoning administrator, has been handling legal cases as a volunteer.
Mr. Louderback said he was concerned about the chances of missing relatively large payments owed by builders, especially because heavy layoffs in the county Public Works Department have increased the chances of mistakes there.
Robert A. Summers, the law office administrator, said Monday that Mr. Spiegel "was a great help" and "a diligent volunteer" who had an impact on collections but that his recovery claims are overblown.
Mr. Summers said that since Mr. Spiegel stopped working, no one from the law office is systematically calling debtors.
"If I were authorized," Mr. Summers said, "I would hire someone to collect bills."
Under the county's system, a person who owes the county money gets a bill. If the bill is not paid, the finance department sends a delinquency notice, followed by a dunning letter from the law office after 90 days. If still unpaid, the bill goes to the law office for possible court action. That's where things broke down, Mr. Spiegel said, because no one took action.
The county is routinely owed money by a variety of other public agencies, by BG&E;, Mr. Spiegel's old employer, by local recreation councils who use county equipment, by trash haulers for dumping fees, by people who have damaged county property in accidents and by local hospitals. If the fees remain unpaid after three years, they aren't legally collectible.
Often, Mr. Spiegel said, the bills are lost, duplicated or mixed up with other charges. With his experience in customer relations, he said, he investigated each one through the county bureaucracy and was able to straighten out misunderstandings and mistakes. Most debtors paid their bills willingly once he called them, he said.
A bill for $1,175 owed by the Overlea-Fullerton Recreation Council, for example, had not been paid. Mr. Spiegel found that it had been sent to a nonexistent address. Once he got the right address and called the person responsible, the money came in quickly.