VALLEY, Ala. (WIAT) – She never made it to that doctor’s appointment.
Dee Kent, then 77 years old, had been on her way from Valley to Opelika, Alabama, for a test that would determine if the cancer she’d already beaten twice had come back. But she wasn’t far into Lee County, she said, when she saw the blue lights.
“And the doctor is waiting on me,” Kent recalled.
She wouldn’t make the appointment.
Police officers had soon handcuffed Kent and placed her in the back of their cruiser, under arrest for failure to pay a $141 trash bill.
“I’ve never been so embarrassed,” she said.
Dee Kent is one of at least two dozen people arrested for failure to pay garbage fees in Valley, Alabama, targets of a process that has criminalized debt in a city that contracts its solid waste services to a private company, AmWaste. A review of court documents shows that individuals arrested over unpaid trash fees in Chambers County are often people facing financial difficulties, people of color, or people with disabilities. Some residents, records show, have been arrested repeatedly, and most charged criminally with failing to pay trash bills end up paying hundreds in court costs and fees in addition to the bills themselves.
So far, city officials have been largely silent on the matter, with the exception of a written statement by Valley’s chief of police defending his department’s arrest of Martha Menefield, another elderly resident, for failure to pay a $77.80 garbage bill.
While officers can use discretionary judgment on “certain matters,” the chief argued, executing an arrest warrant signed by a magistrate “is not one of them.”
“City of Valley Code Enforcement Officers issued Ms. Menefield a citation in August of 2022 for non-payment for trash services for the months of June, July, and August,” Chief Mike Reynolds’ statement said. “Prior to issuing the citation, Code Enforcement tried to call Ms. Menefield several times and attempted to contact her in person at her residence. When contact could not be made, a door hanger was left at her residence. The hanger contained information on the reason for the visit and a name and contact phone number for her to call. The citation advised Ms. Menefield that she was to appear in court on September 7, 2022, in reference to this case. A warrant for Failure to Pay-Trash was issued when she did not appear in court.”
Nortasha Jackson had to prioritize.
Earlier this year, she’d been asked to become a caretaker for her grandson, who has a disability. During that transition, she said she was primarily focused on making sure he was receiving an appropriate education. She remembered getting a phone call about a trash bill at some point but said it didn’t particularly stand out in her mind. It was a few dollars, she thought, and she had more urgent issues to address.
Then came the knock at Nortasha Jackson’s door. When she opened it, the officer on the other side cut straight to the point.
“You’re under arrest for failure to pay your trash bill,” Jackson recalled him saying.
The embarrassment was overwhelming, Jackson said.
“I’m glad my grandkids wasn’t there,” she said.
Jackson believes Valley authorities are targeting particular individuals for arrest over garbage fees.
“They’re choosing people that they think may not speak up,” Jackson said. “It’s a crock.”
Jackson, who works part-time at a local gas station and herself has a disability, said that Valley’s citizens deserve leadership that will quickly throw the city’s garbage policy out to the curb. Doing so isn’t just the right thing to do, she said, it’s what’s needed to improve the city’s image and secure its future.
“Don’t try to grow with 1950s and 60s vibes,” she said. “You have to either grow with the times or stay behind. You can’t do both.”
Laqueda Pace said if AmWaste wants her money, they should have to “hold up their end of the bargain.”
Her trash service, she said, has never been reliable.
Pace, a mother of two boys, ages 15 and 7, has been booked twice on criminal charges related to unpaid trash bills, once in 2020 and again in 2022.
“I’m a single parent,” she said. “I struggle to pay my bills. But I try to keep them paid.”
She said that she’d tried to speak with the city’s code enforcer about the late bills, but he was rude and suggested only that she turn herself in to police.
“We shouldn’t have to go to jail for a trash bill,” she said.
The fees and court costs charged on top of bill amounts are also excessive, Pace said. Because of her financial situation, Pace has been granted a payment plan of $100 a month. In the end, she’ll have paid $666 related to a single case – more than double what she originally owed.
Court records show that, on average, unpaid trash bills amounted to around $122. The court costs and fees added to that, however, added up to – on average – an additional $329.
For Pace, the added financial pressure has forced her into a balancing act.
“I have to pay a fine. I have to do Christmas. I have to take care of my kids,” Pace said. “It’s stressful, but if I don’t pay it, I’ll be arrested again.”
When the police officer told Dee Kent there was a warrant for her arrest, she assured him he was wrong.
“I haven’t done nothing to have a warrant for,” Kent remembered telling him.
She’d been pulled over in Lee County on the way to a doctor’s appointment in Opelika. She’d been placed in cuffs and put into a cruiser. Then, Kent said, the officer drove her to the county line, where he transferred her into the custody of an officer from Chambers County.
Eventually, Kent was told she’d been arrested for failure to pay her trash bill. Her husband, she said, had just passed away, and she occasionally forgets to pay the bill.
“Usually if I forget to pay the garbage bill, they’ll send me a letter telling me,” she said. “If I’m busy, and I still forget it, they take the garbage can.”
The city didn’t do any of that in the lead-up to her arrest, she said.
“And here I am being humiliated standing on the side of the road,” she said.
Arresting citizens, particularly older folks, over trash fees is embarrassing and demeaning, Kent said.
“It’s bad enough when you’re young. But when you get older, all you can think about is ‘there goes my reputation,’” she said. “I’ve worked all my life to have a decent name and reputation. So it just floored me. It’s absolutely wrong.”
Kent sat on her living room couch as she told the story. She’s lived in what she calls “the Valley” her whole life, spending three decades in the same uncut pine home her grandfather once lived in. Her family was middle class growing up, Kent said, though she mentions she and her two siblings sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. Now 79, Kent said she’s proud of the way she raised her own two children.
She’d had her share of tragedy, too. Kent recalled having a miscarriage while at work years ago. She had to keep working, she said, because her husband, who’d left, wouldn’t help pay for the kids’ groceries. She thought what happened was her fault. It would take her years to move past it, she said.
But Kent remembered how love sustained her family, even in difficult times.
One Christmas, she said, she’d been really struggling financially. The kids were worried about presents – both for them and their mom. She told them that she’d appreciate anything they gave her – even if it was a piece of gum or a little note. They managed to do better, she remembered, giving her an Ann Murray record.
“It was little things like that I remember most,” she said.
Kent’s children, now adults, have asked her to move in with them or just to allow them to get her an apartment nearby. She’s always refused.
She stood on her side porch Tuesday evening in a pink nightgown, watching as the sun set over the Alabama-Georgia line.
“It feels so good to be here,” she said. “It’s mine. Nobody can just up and tell me to get out.”
But things like this trash fiasco, Kent said, make her worry for her hometown.
“Every time we get a new mayor or something, everything changes. This place here is still in the 1800s – horse-and-buggy days. That’s the way they think,” she said. “It’s getting bad in the Valley.”
Beverly Coreano wasn’t in Valley for long. A Philadelphia native, she’d come to Chambers County only for a few months.
But when she left, Coreano said, she forgot to cancel the garbage service. It was a decision she’d come to regret. Coreano had moved to Lee County but was briefly in town to take care of various business at Valley City Hall. An officer came out from the back and approached her.
“Are you Beverly?” She remembered him asking.
Coreano was booked on failure to pay $114 trash bill. She was shocked.
Arresting people for owing trash fees is unnecessary and absurd, she said.
In addition to the bill she owed, Coreano was charged more than $300 in fees and court costs. She said the additional fees are unfair.
But the main issue that's stemmed from the arrest, Coreano said, has been the questions the record has brought up for potential employers. Coreano, now a postal carrier, explained that the USPS had a hard time even believing she’d been arrested for something as simple as failure to pay her trash bill.
“There were like ‘Were you littering?’” Coreano said. “And I said ‘No. It’s about the trash can on the side of the road.’”
Coreano believes the city should reform its garbage policy and that policymakers should move to expunge the records of those who were charged criminally for what she believes should have been a completely civil matter.
As for heading back to Chambers County for good? Coreano said she doesn’t see it in her future.
“I won’t be moving back,” she said flatly.
Rydell Broughton didn’t even owe a garbage bill. In fact, he didn’t even live in Valley.
But Chambers County, Broughton soon found out, contracted out its trash pickup to AmWaste, the same company used by Valley. And like Valley, Broughton said, Chambers County seemed willing to do the company’s bidding.
Broughton was charged with failure to participate in the county’s waste management service. So far, he’s been charged just over $518 in associated court costs and fees.
He said arrests over garbage policies “make no sense.”
“Arrested for what?” He asked. “Garbage service should be free.”
Martha Menefield had thought she was alone. Arrested over a $77 trash bill in front of her Valley home, the 82-year-old woman had felt isolated and ashamed.
After Menefield’s arrest garnered state, national and international headlines, prosecutors dropped the case against her. But it was too late, she said. She knew she wasn't the only one.
Now, Martha Menefield is calling for others to get justice, too. She wants those in situations like the one she faced to know they’re not alone.
On Tuesday evening, Menefield’s water had just been turned back on after months of plumbing work. The trash ordeal had made an already bad situation worse. Now she felt she finally had some room to breathe.
At one point, at the mention of Nortasha Jackson, the gas station worker arrested around the same time as Ms. Martha, Menefield’s granddaughter speaks up.
“Her kids used to come to your daycare,” she told her grandmother.
Martha had been a caretaker – for both adults and children – over the years.
Martha’s granddaughter looked defiant.
“The city doesn’t want the attention that's going to go with it, that’s why they dropped your case,” she continued. “But it shouldn’t stop here. This shouldn’t happen to anyone ever again.”
CBS 42 reached out to the City of Valley for comment but had not heard back as of publication time.