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Deadbeat customer St. Louis County clears $1.4 million in unpaid internet, phone bills

Deadbeat customer St. Louis County clears $1.4 million in unpaid internet, phone bills

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St. Louis County government building

Entrance to St. Louis County government building, at 41 S. Central Avenue in Clayton. (Post-Dispatch)

CLAYTON — The unpaid bills for internet and phones piled up for years, stuffed in drawers and stacked up on file cabinets to be paid later — or never.

But this was not the apartment of a Generation Z procrastinator in need of free credit counseling. It was the office of the St. Louis County information technology department.

The amount due was at least $1.4 million, with unpaid invoices dating back to at least 2013.

The problem came to light this week when the County Council, without discussion, voted 6-0 to approve the IT department’s request for a $1.1 million budget transfer to clear the bills. The vendors, including AT&T, Charter, the Regional Justice Information System and ConvergeOne, agreed to waive a combined $300,000.

It’s real money that came out of a surplus the IT department would have otherwise posted this year after some internal belt-tightening, said acting IT director Charles Henderson. The cash would have gone back into the county’s already-stressed general fund.

And the news comes on the heels of an announcement on Monday that county taxpayers must foot a $10.25 million judgment against the county in a workplace discrimination case while the county tries to get it back from insurance carriers.

How does this happen?

Henderson said Thursday that the unpaid bills were about 1% of the amount the county had paid over several years. He said he inherited the problem and has been working to correct it since he took over the county’s IT staff in August when the administration of County Executive Sam Page parted ways with Rick Nolle, the county’s chief information officer.

Henderson also recently told the council the county had wasted $1 million on various tech contracts.

Henderson said an invoice may get flagged and go unpaid if there is an error or if the county disputes it for some reason — for example, if the county, a nontaxable entity, is charged tax.

For years, he said, people in the IT department placed those invoices on indefinite holds without anyone filling out a purchase order to record an expense to carry over to be paid next year.

There would be no money in the budget to pay them the following year.

And, as time went by, some people moved on to other jobs. And the invoices continued to gather dust.

“People were not following good accounting practices,” Henderson said.

AT&T finally called in the fall, politely asking when the county planned to pay an outstanding balance of $680,000 for internet and phones. The company agreed to take $567,000. An account representative declined to comment.

“It just got to the point where our balance at AT&T was big enough to make other people notice at the corporation,” Henderson said. With Charter, he said, “our account team didn’t even really know how much we owed them because nobody high up at the corporation started asking questions.”

Henderson said he has been working since September to fix the problem and make sure it never happens again.

While a business or personal customer might get service cut off, St. Louis County kept its phones on.

“They definitely treated the St. Louis County government, much, much nicer than they do a business,” Henderson said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated in the fourth paragraph to correct the vote tally by the County Council.

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