Horizon behind by nearly $27,000 in sewer fees, city says

The city of Pine Bluff is considering seeking a court judgment against the financially-troubled Horizon Foods poultry processing plant at 2201 W. Second Ave. in an effort to collect $26,620.50 in unpaid sewer fees from December through February.

City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott advised Horizon Vice President Rory Botto in an April 2 letter that if the debt to Pine Bluff Wastewater Utility isn’t satisfied within 10 business days, PBWU will be compelled “to pursue any and all remedies permitted under Arkansas law.”

PBWU Manager Ken Johnson said Wednesday that he was unaware of any effort by Horizon to pay its bill, which he said was the largest unpaid debt he had seen in his 30-year career.

“We were made promises, but they haven’t been kept,” Johnson said of the dealings with Horizon on the matter.

Johnson provided a copy of Hadden-Scott’s letter to The Commercial.

Meanwhile, efforts to contact Botto failed. A reporter telephoned him at the plant’s general number and was placed on hold for a time without an answer from Botto, who also failed to respond to a message left on his cell phone.

Hadden-Scott’s letter states that Horizon — with a workforce of about 190 people — owed $12,936.48 for December, $6,425.53 for January and $7,258.49 for February. March’s charges were yet to be determined.

“PBWU has attempted to collect this debt on numerous occasions,” Hadden-Scott wrote. “Due to your lack of response, it was necessary for it to demand payment for sewer services, via certified letter. Because you have failed to respond within the time frame allotted, PBWU has requested that legal action be taken against you.

“There is no question that you received sewer services and are obligated to pay PBWU,” the letter said. “In the event of litigation, PBWU will likely obtain a judgment against you, inclusive of court costs and attorney’s fees.”

Horizon, which began operating in July 2012 after surpassing anticipated start-up expenses by $1.7 million, processes spent laying hens primarily for foreign markets. Botto told The Commercial about a month ago that the plant had been in limited operation after the “start-up difficulties” but was expected to be functioning at full capacity in early April.

The former Tyson Foods plant was purchased by Horizon for $1.1 million in November 2011. Costs for the facility’s preparation for Horizon’s production swelled after thieves ransacked the building, stealing copper wiring and plumbing pipes and committing vandalism, Botto said.

The extra expenses, coupled with a seasonal delay in delivery of hens, created financial obstacles that prompted the shutdown. “We’re not quitting,” Botto said in March, adding that the plant represents a “huge investment” of about $5 million. “We’re bringing in more capital and will be paying our creditors’ bills.”

Botto was confident during the March interview that Horizon would rebound.

“It’s taken us a little longer to get going, but you have to remember that we’re not only dealing with a tough economy here, but also with economic conditions of 15 to 20 countries around the world,” he said. “Our sales are fabulous. We need to produce more. We’re committed to success. Our facility is running well. We’re planning on being here a long time.”

Horizon received a $329,000 incentive last year from the Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County in revenue from a three-eighths cent sales tax approved by county voters in 2011 and earmarked for job creation. The monies covered the cost of refrigeration equipment for the plant, which was projected to employ 329 people within three to five years. Starting with 175 employees, Horizon expected to create the additional jobs with a second work shift.

The company is to receive a credit of $1,000 for each job it creates — up to 329 — which would satisfy the entire outlay from the board.

The board hired The Alliance, directed by President and Chief Executive Officer Lou Ann Nisbett, to help oversee the panel’s appropriations. Nisbett has said that she and the board are aware of Horizon’s financial struggles but are maintaining their faith in the company’s dedication to Pine Bluff and potential for success.