City considers half million in debt forgiveness

by Avery Zingel - May 29, 2018

The city of Yellowknife is considering forgiving more than half a million in unpaid and uncollectible debts.

The city’s old collection agency may have had issues “actually following up” on delinquent accounts, said Sheila Bassi-Kellett. “It’s super unfortunate, we wish it hadn’t been the case.”
Avery Zingel/NNSL photo

Emergency and ambulatory debts account for 65 per cent of those unpaid accounts, prompting some councillors to ask if footing the bill for emergency services should fall to the city.

The arrears accumulated between 1998 and 2014 — a majority of them are unpaid ambulance and emergency bills to the tune of $383,000.

Some individuals are listed for one-off charges, while one individual on the list received 53 ambulance rides between 2003 and 2007, racking up $11, 407 in charges.

After the motion is passed, there will be no more record of the debt.

Coun. Julian Morse asked if the city could work with the GNWT to partner over ambulance related expenses and said the city should be “better compensated” for its ambulance services.

“I would just note that there are communities in this territory who are completely, 100 per cent subsidized in their ambulance services by the GNWT and it’s ridiculous that the taxpayers of Yellowknife have to foot the GNWT’s bill in this sense,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s fair.”

Any ambulatory debt should be charged to the GNWT, he said.

“The vast majority of it is costs that we’re providing on behalf of another government that’s better funded than ours,” said Morse.

The city is seeing changes in use of ambulance services with the implementation of the street outreach service, which has alleviated some of the stress on emergency responders.

“We are seeing a change in terms of the number of people that are picked up twice in one day. That is a huge frustration point for our emergency responders, for the city overall and certainly from a financial point of view,” said city senior administrative officer Sheila Bassi-Kellett.

However, after the city makes “all reasonable attempts to collect payment,” its best practice is to forgive the uncollectible debts.

Some individuals may not be aware their names are on a debt collection list, said Coun. Niels Konge.

One of those individuals attended Monday’s municipal services meeting, and in an interview with Yellowknifer, stated that the city had never contacted them about a minor but outstanding debt.

The city had previously hired a collection agency that lacked “capacity,” said Bassi-Kellett.

“There may have been issues with that collection agency in actually following up with some of the people that were on that list. It’s super unfortunate, we wish it hadn’t been the case,” she said.

The city has a “rigorous” relationship with a new national collection agency, said Bassi-Kellett.

The city’s forgiveness, year-over-year, represents between half a per cent and one per cent of the city’s collectibles, said Sharolynn Woodward, the city’s director of corporate services in an interview with Yellowknifer.

The city should have been forgiving debts annually, but as of 2000 that practice suddenly and inexplicably stopped, said Woodward.

When the city’s internal processes for seeking repayment are exhausted, the city sends debts-owing to a collection agency.

Ambulance fees are notoriously difficult to recoup, she said.

“It’s a service we can’t deny and yet collections are extremely difficult,” she said.

In 2014, “it became apparent (the agency) wasn’t doing what we need them do.

“It was a one person show. They ended up not turning over all the money they should have and just kind of disappeared,” she said.

“We did have a blip with a collection agency, when we noticed they weren’t giving us the right service we switched,” said Woodward.

The debt forgiveness “might seem a little shocking,” she said. “This is a one-time catch-up housekeeping exercise.”