FARMINGTON — Dwayne Sadler sold his guitar to pay his wife's ex-husband's five-year-old electric bill.

He doesn't know how the Farmington Electric Utility System traced the bill to his name — or why. He considered hiring a lawyer, but legal fees would have more than tripled the $118 bill.

So he paid it, he said, because, otherwise, the utility system would have shut off his power.

"I was bulldogged," he said.

Every month, the city's utility system's dedicated collections specialist, Stacey Arnold — whose job was created four years ago — sifts through 100 to 150 delinquent accounts.

Everyday, the system cuts power to about 10 to 15 customers for non-payment, Customer Care Manager Nicki Parks said. Some days, the company prints as many as 200 disconnect notices, she said. That's out of about 44,000 electric and 16,000 water customers, she said.

Sadler wasn't certain the utility system's actions were legal. But according to Parks, billing him for his wife's ex-husband's debt followed the utility system's policy.

The company's records show that Sadler's wife and her ex-husband were still married when the debt was incurred, still married, so it became both their responsibilities, Parks said.

When Sadler and his wife later married and sought to connect to the utility system, his wife first had to pay the debt from her ex-husband, Parks said. In New Mexico partners share each other's debts when they marry, so the debt also became Sadler's responsibility, Parks said.

And, because the utility system bills to only one name and Sadler was the name on the account, the bill was addressed to him, she said.

"We're not technically holding him responsible for it," she said.

Each month the utility system mails its customers their bills. Payment is due 14 days after.

If a customer misses a deadline, the system mails a second copy of the bill, enclosed with a 14-day disconnect notice. Seven days before the system disconnects a customer, it mails the last warning, which Parks called the "dreaded pink tag."

If a bill remains unpaid for 30 days, Arnold, the collection specialist, intervenes.

"At that point, I start doing a form of (Dick) Tracy," she said.

She attempted to collect from Sadler's wife's ex-husband, but he failed to pay, she said. Sadler says he no longer lives in the service area.

So she ran Sadler's wife's and her ex-husband's social security — which the system had on record — and she discovered Sadler's current address, she said.

Then she mailed a letter to Sadler and his wife, giving her an opportunity to pay the balance or prove she wasn't married to her ex-husband at the time the debt was incurred, Arnold said.

Sadler said his wife had legally separated from her ex-husband three years before the man incurred the debt. But his wife neither paid the balance nor proved she separated from her ex-husband when he incurred the debt, Arnold said.

The debt transferred to Sadler, Arnold said.

"It's amazing what you can find when you do a little leg work," she said.

Sadler said his wife tore the pink disconnect notice into pieces and threw it in a trash can.

He was angry, he said, and still misses his guitar.

It was an electric-acoustic Ibanez, coated in glossy mother of pearl and swirling abalone.

"It was beautiful," he said.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and dschwartz@daily-times.com. Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.