Error sent to state Setoff Program leads to employer garnish wages

Julie Anderson

Human error is easy to understand, but not always easy to fix. A simple typing error caused one El Dorado resident to have her employer contacted to withhold money from her paycheck for a water bill which was only a week overdue.

The error, made by the city of El Dorado, showed some El Dorado residents as not paying year-old, past-due water bills, although in reality they were only the 2007 bills.

The city of El Dorado had inadvertently sent the 2007 unpaid bills, rather than the 2006 unpaid bills, to the state Setoff Program, a program that contacts employers to withhold past-due monies from paychecks.

One resident, Debra Lynch, was affected by this mistake.

She had a home she was trying to remodel at the time.

“I had been maintaining my water service at the house,” she said.

When she knew she wouldn’t be able to get back to the house for a while, she called the city staff to tell them to make her next bill the final bill.

One immediate problem she saw was that the dates on the final bill were clear back from October, which she had paid. The due date on the bill was Dec. 20.

She was late on paying that bill because her husband was terminally ill and had passed away shortly after that.

“I got a notification dated Dec. 28 from the state that a past-due bill had been reported from the city and they had contacted my employer to withhold the money from my paycheck,” Lynch said, adding that it had only been a week since the bill was due.

Right after New Year’s Day she went to the city building in hopes of clearing it up.

She said she was told the city had a new computer system and city staff had input the wrong information to be sent to the state. That was when the 2007 information was sent.

She talked with Kendra Porter, city clerk, about the issue and asked that she be sent copies of any correspondence between the city and state getting it cleared up.

After a few days, when Lynch hadn’t heard anything, she went back to the city and talked with Porter further.

On Tuesday she got a copy of an e-mail from the water department to the state, stating she had paid the bill.

“That was all there was,” she said. “No reference that they made a huge mistake.”

She felt this still showed she had been turned in for collection, and didn’t show it was really the city’s mistake.

She also was concerned that anybody who was past due on their December bills this year also would have been reported to the state.

“I was flabbergasted that it (information on the mistake) was not sent out to the community,” she said.

She e-mailed back her concerns to the person who had sent her the e-mail, as well as the mayor and city commissioners.

Lynch does realize it was purely an input error, but she is concerned “if they’re not going to ‘fess up and tell the state that they made a mistake.”

However, Porter said the mistake was corrected with the state.

“It was simply a computer error,” she said. “We send information each year to the Setoff Program.”

As for the e-mail copied to Lynch, Porter said that they sent a separate e-mail to the state addressing all of the accounts that were incorrectly submitted, asking they be corrected.

Although it has been corrected on the state records, the state doesn’t send the correction on to the employer to stop the withholdings, which causes undue hardship to the employee, although it shouldn’t affect a person’s credit because it was not turned in for their credit record.

“We won’t contact them,” Linda Maike, a representative from the Setoff Program, said of the employers. “Once the debts are removed we will refund the money (that was deducted from the paychecks) or send it back.”

Lynch still is working to get her name cleared through the state, so it doesn’t appear she was a year past due.

“The whole situation being computer problems happen, but don’t try to downplay them,” she said. “I have no idea how many people this affected. It may be a lot, it may be a handful.”