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Spring water bill innocently overlooked by league is smoking gun in election site change

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A $232 overdue city water bill overlooked by management at the North Side Improvement League has unfairly damaged its public reputation, contends a trustee in charge of the organization’s finances.

The Jefferson County Board of Elections decided Wednesday that because of the league’s financial problems, its building at 633 Mill St. should not be used as a poll site for Tuesday’s election. That decision was made after the city Water Department shut off the league’s service Oct. 21 because of the unpaid spring water bill. The bill was paid and the water restored two days later.

Some 2,500 residents in election districts 14/1 and 15/1 are being told to vote Tuesday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 302 W. Lynde St.

The league has financial difficulties, but it still had ample cash flow to pay the utility bills for its property, said Brenda L. Parker, a trustee who oversees financial operations for the organization. The league’s board decided in mid-October to suspend Monday night Bingo because it hasn’t drawn a profit. The board also recently obtained a loan to boost cash flow in the interim, the league said.

Mrs. Parker said bills from the city were simply lost in the mail. Her hours at the league have been limited recently because she underwent foot surgery in early October to treat a ruptured tendon.

“Someone else was filling in for me and forgot to open the mail,” she said.

But “I think it’s quite bizarre that an overdue water bill would turn into this,” she said of the Elections Board’s decision to change the poll site. “I think they jumped the gun on us.”

This fall, the league repaired water leaks in its kitchen and women’s restroom, said Mrs. Parker, whose husband, Joseph S., is president of the organization.

On Tuesday, Republican Election Commissioner Jerry O. Eaton called Mrs. Parker to discuss concerns about the league’s financial status. Mr. Eaton suggested that opening the poll site could be risky because of the league’s uncertain financial status, according to Mrs. Parker. The facility was going to be used by poll workers Monday through Wednesday, she said.

“He said the legislators wanted to move the location, but I told him everything would be fine,” Mrs. Parker said. “We were going to have it open. But I found out they changed the location on the news the following morning. It’s all about politics and what the legislators want.”

The league was sent a quarterly water bill May 31 for $165.80, Water Superintendent Michael J. Sligar said. The unpaid bill was assessed a 10 percent penalty on Aug. 30, along with about 900 other delinquent city accounts. On Sept. 23, notices were mailed to warn users that water would be shut off if accounts weren’t paid up by Oct. 21. The league was among 219 users with delinquent accounts that had their water shut off Oct. 21. A $50 penalty was assessed, increasing the league’s bill from $182.38 to $232.38.

Mr. Sligar said he believes the league made an honest mistake by overlooking the bill. City records dating to 1999 show it has never had its water shut off before.

“It came across to us as an oversight,” he said. “These water shut-offs are painful events for everyone involved, but it’s a significant amount of money.”

City property taxes owed for this year and 2014 are the main cause of the league’s financial woes, Mrs. Parker said. Its 600 members and annual fundraisers have not generated enough revenue to pay those taxes. But two years ago, the league was in a much worse financial bind.

“We owed $14,800 in back taxes and paid them off within six months,” she said. The amount the league now owes is less than half that amount, she said.

Bingo nights used to be a consistent source of revenue for the league, she said, until participation started to drop. The group needs at least 135 Bingo participants to make a profit, she said, but numbers have been well below that mark.

“We were getting only 100 to 125 at most, but we need 135 to make money,” she said. “If the community came here to support Bingo, that would help. We’re here for the community, but the community doesn’t seem to be with us lately.”

Bingo nights could return to the league in early 2014, Mrs. Parker said, depending on its financial comeback.

“We’re now exploring development options at this time,” she said, but did not specify how funds will be raised.

The 9,600-square-foot building is assessed at $395,200, according to city property records.

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