YORK, Pa. — Joe Kirby was at work in Maryland when he got the phone call. He drove back to his Pennsylvania home, texting his boss that there was an emergency.
His wife, Christina, was hysterical. There was a member of the York County Sheriff’s Office going through every room of their house, taking inventory of their property to eventually put up for sale. The deputy sheriff told her he’d already done it with the cars in the driveway: a 2002 BMW 3 Series and 2007 Volkswagen GTI.
It was over their unpaid trash bill to Penn Waste.
Kirby called the Pennsylvania State Police — he’d never heard of that happening before over small debts. He met the deputy sheriff outside and paid off the bill, which was about $160. With court costs and fees, the total was more than $650.
They’d been receiving notices and yellow slips at their house but didn’t think much of them. Kirby said his wife has medical conditions — she’s sometimes in the hospital for one month at a time — so they struggle with bills. They always eventually pay them, he said.
“It was real demeaning to us,” said Kirby, 34, a plumber from Codorus Township.
An analysis by the York Daily Record/Sunday News shows that Penn Waste has used this powerful legal process — filing what’s called a writ of execution on personal property — at least 263 times in cases that were started since the beginning of 2016. Most of the bills owed are between $150 and $250.
In a few instances, the business has asked a judge to direct the sheriff’s office to break and enter someone’s home with a locksmith if he or she refuses to let a deputy in. Meanwhile, during that same period, competing waste-hauling companies did not use the practice in York County.
Penn Waste is owned by state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, who’s one of three candidates vying for the GOP nomination for governor on May 15.
His company has come under fire in the past for filing lawsuits against customers who don’t pay their bills. Recently, Paul Mango, a retired health care systems consultant who’s also running in the Republican primary, unveiled an attack ad called “Faded Neon,” which, in part, criticizes Wagner for suing an 84-year-old woman who refused to pay for trash collection in 2004.
In one campaign ad, Wagner vows to “put big government in the dumpster” if elected governor. He’s called himself “a private sector guy.”
In a statement, Amanda Davidson, director of marketing for Penn Waste, said the company bills more than 100,000 customers across southcentral Pennsylvania.
The business gives people multiple opportunities before and after legal action is initiated to set up a payment plan. Penn Waste will file a writ of execution in “extreme cases” in which a customer has continuously refused to pay a debt. At the point of a sheriff’s sale, she said, a person has been given, on average, nine months to satisfy his or her obligations.
“Penn Waste provides an important service to this community,” Davidson said. “We do not think it is unreasonable to utilize the judicial system to collect money owed to us for services we have already provided.”
Here’s how the process works:
First, Penn Waste — or any person or company that’s owed money — can go to court and ask a district judge to enter a judgment in its favor. If someone does not appeal within 30 days, the business can file the decision with the York County Prothonotary’s Office and ask for a writ of execution to be issued.
The plaintiff needs to include a $200 check to cover sheriff’s costs. The writ of execution is valid for 90 days.
A deputy sheriff inventories their personal property, which prevents the owner from doing anything with the items. If that happens, it’s a crime: defrauding secured creditors. There are some possessions that are exempt under the law and can’t be touched, including Bibles, sewing machines and school books.
People can pay off the full amount or work something out with the company. If not, the items eventually go up for sheriff’s sale.
In a civil complaint, Penn Waste said the Kirbys last made a payment on April 7, 2017, which was applied to the oldest invoices. They refused to contact the company to make payment arrangements, according to court documents.
The Kirbys said they made a payment of $200 on Feb. 1, 2018. The deputy sheriff showed up about three weeks later.
When Joe and Christina Kirby fell behind on their trash bills, Penn Waste sent a deputy sheriff to take inventory of their personal belongings. York Daily Record
In a statement, Tim O’Donnell, president of the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, said its members are in favor of practices that allow them to get paid for their services while remaining in compliance with contracts.
The contracts, he said, often outline the process of collecting unpaid bills.
O’Donnell, who’s the general manager for Republic Services in York County, a competing waste-hauling company, said in an interview that the price would go up for all customers if businesses didn’t have a way to collect delinquent bills. That’s because they’d have to build that cost into their bids, he said.
Republic Services most often stops picking up people’s trash if their bills are 90 days past due, he said.
O’Donnell said the company usually gets a response before that happens. The business, he said, wouldn’t rule out filing a writ of execution.
Court records show that Republic Services, which also does business as York Waste Disposal, has not filed a writ of execution in cases that were started since the beginning of 2016.
Waste Management did not provide information about its practices for collecting unpaid bills.
Some municipalities that use Penn Waste are responsible for billing.
In West Manchester Township, for example, the government files liens on people’s homes for unpaid trash bills. That prevents them from selling the property.
Township Manager Kelly Kelch said it can take several years to get paid. He said the supervisors are discussing amending the ordinance to turn over enforcement to a private collections agency.
The writs of execution seem to work. The York Daily Record could find no case in which property was auctioned off. It’s common that people will quickly pay up or work something out with Penn Waste.
Aaron Marines, an attorney in Lancaster who represents about 70 homeowners and condominium associations in the region, and files writs of execution on their behalf, said he’s often trying to collect small amounts — $200, $300 or $400 — but they add up.
Marines said it can take several months to go through the court process. And it’s a lot harder to collect a debt when a person owes thousands of dollars.
He said his clients generally don’t budge from collecting the full amount they’re owed. Meanwhile, a collections agency might take 50 cents on the dollar.
Nothing will happen with a judgment, he said, if it just sits. Most of his clients use the practice, if necessary.
“That’s our secret for collections,” Marines said. “Keeping it moving.”
But Kirby, the plumber, said he doesn’t think that writs of execution are fair.
Kirby said he and his wife are thinking about dropping Penn Waste, if it’s allowed.
“If there’s any route around not using Penn Waste,” he said, “we’re 100 percent going to cancel them.”
Full statement from Penn Waste:
“Penn Waste services over 185,000 residential customers across south centralPennsylvania. For over 100,000 of those customers we are required by our municipal contracts to bill directly. If a customer is unable to pay their bill, we give them multiple opportunities, both before and after legal action is initiated, to set up a payment plan that is acceptable for both parties. In extreme cases, if a customer continuously refuses to satisfy a judgment entered against them by the court, Penn Waste will pursue enforcement of the judgment through the execution process, which can eventually result in a Sheriff’s levy and sale of property. At the point of the sheriff’s sale, on average, the customer has been given nine months to satisfy their obligation to us. Penn Waste provides an important service to this community. We do not think it is unreasonable to utilize the judicial system to collect money owed to us for services we have already provided.”