AMESBURY — Most of the time, public workers who successfully track down a long-standing debt owed to the state would be applauded.
But in the case of former Municipal Councilor Alice Mainville, it's enough to make most people shake their heads.
Mainville got a letter from her home state recently telling her she owes New Jersey's Department of Labor a whopping $73 because they gave her too much money in an unemployment check 35 years ago.
That's right, $73 ... 35 years ago.
"What blows me away is that any time or energy went to collecting a $73 debt. Surely, there's something more lucrative for the state to pursue," Mainville said.
Mainville's time on the unemployment line stemmed from a high school job as a clerk in a bakery.
There were two separate unions at the bakery. Bakers and store clerks were in one union, the bakers and confectioners union; delivery drivers were in another, the Teamsters.
But when the Teamsters went on strike, they shut down work at the bakery. Mainville learned she could collect unemployment because her union wasn't on strike. So at 17, she collected a few weeks of unemployment.
"Being in high school, I thought that was pretty cool," Mainville said.
But it seems the state calculated her unemployment check incorrectly.
Last fall, she received a letter from the state about the money due. The letter was addressed to Alice Scheller, her maiden name.
Mainville initially thought the letter was intended for her late mother, whom she is named after and who spent her life in New Jersey. The letter didn't have a Social Security number or even any payment schedule or explanation of the error. She said she hadn't received any other letters or notices previously.
A subsequent letter, however, including Mainville's Social Security number, made it clear she was the intended recipient.
Mainville left New Jersey after graduating from high school. She went to college in Boston and has lived in Amesbury since 1989. She served as councilor from 1996 to 1999.
New Jersey Department of Labor spokeswoman Kerri H. Gatling said there is no bad debt "write-off" in unemployment insurance law.
"Once a debt is established, it remains in effect until repaid. When we get a new, valid address, we send a refund notice to that new address," Gatling said.
Gatling said a notice may have been sent earlier, but returned by the post office as undeliverable with no forwarding address. In those cases, a bad address indicator is placed on the file and no further notices are generated.
"If, at any point in time, a new valid address is found for the person, a notice is sent to that new address," Gatling added.
Mainville isn't entirely convinced. She doesn't plan on paying the debt because she hasn't seen any explanation on how the state of New Jersey came about this error.
"The whole idea of contacting me after all this time goes by is pretty arbitrary," she said.