A pair of lawyers working for some St. Clair Township residents filed a lawsuit Friday related to the controversial sewer services contract between the township and Swansea.
The lawsuit filed against Swansea alleges the village violates Illinois common law in charging township residents whose wastewater is treated by the Swansea plant at a higher rate than village residents.
The suit states Swansea is collecting “discriminatory fees with a reckless disregard for the property and rights of the citizens and landowners of St. Clair Township.”
Swansea Mayor Ken Mueller said he thinks the residents are “suing the wrong people.”
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“I don’t know how they can sue Swansea,” he said. “It’s the township people who signed this agreement, and to be absolutely honest with you, I was flabbergasted when I got the letter saying they accepted it.”
What the township board should have done, Mueller said, is come back to the village with a different rate.
“But they didn’t,” he said. “I almost fell out of my chair.”
The contract signed last summer by the township and the village states non-Swansea residents whose wastewater is treated by the Swansea plant will pay the village 1.3 times the rate residents pay. The township mandates those residents also pay a new $7.34 monthly fee. About 3,200 St. Clair Township residents are affected by the contract, which took effect March 1.
Mueller said the board proposed the contract based on calculations from engineers and advice from lawyers, who told the board charging a higher rate to non-residents was legal.
“As far as the rate and all that kind of stuff, that’s something that was figured out by the township engineer and the village engineer and the attorneys cleaned up the language,” he said. “You have to let the people who have the background for this type of thing to present to the board factual information so they can make a vote.”
Mueller said, from what the board was advised, it was understood that non-residents could be charged as much as 1.5 times what residents pay, which is how much Belleville charges non-residents who use the city’s sewer services.
“Right now, there’s an ordinance in place that says if somebody comes in and wants to tap onto the Swansea sewer plant, it’s in the ordinance right now that they’d be charged 1.5 (times),” Mueller said.
Attorneys John Hipskind and Brady McAninch, of Hipskind & McAninch, LLC. in Belleville, said Friday the goal of the suit is to change the rates for those township residents affected by the contract.
“We hope to see a situation where the rates are either renegotiated or are declared void,” McAninch said. “They’re certainly against Illinois law. I think that they will be declared void in the long term.”
McAninch said Swansea would have to show that the 1.3 multiplier is necessary for it to be legal to charge the township residents a higher rate.
“Is this actually rationally related to what it costs you to give these services to the individuals of St. Clair Township?” McAninch asked.
McAninch said he does not believe Swansea has put forth evidence that the multiplier is “justified or reasonable,” and the village “attempted to get the highest rate that they could out of the St. Clair Township, instead of making sure it was reasonably and rationally related to what was necessary for them to function.”
“Swansea has put in a discriminatory rate that they negotiated for, but they negotiated to get the highest rate that they could. They didn’t negotiate with fairness. They didn’t negotiate with transparency. And that has led us to where we are today with a lot of the issues that we’re seeing,” McAninch said. “I think that’s part of the reason this suit has been filed.”
Mueller said there has “always been a profit margin” in sewer services contracts with the township.
Because the sewer services contract between the municipalities is negotiated every 25 years, Hipskind said the suit may affect future agreements.
“We just want fair dealing between Swansea and the residents of St. Clair Township,” Hipskind said. “I think this fee disproportionately impacts a lower income area of St. Clair Township. We are their voice today. We want them to be treated fairly now and in the future.”
Hipskind’s brother, Greg, is a St. Clair Township trustee. Greg Hipskind, along with trustees Mary Carroll and Keith Sturgis and Supervisor Dave Barnes, approved the sewer services contract that resulted in the lawsuit. Trustee Jaynie Wells abstained from voting for or against the contract.
“He made his own decisions and he can stand on those,” John Hipskind said of Greg Hipskind, “but I’m hired by these people to do a job separate from what his is.”
The attorney’s clients include St. Clair County Board member Bob Trentman, who resigned from the St. Clair Township board in 2012, and residents Dean Wallen and Daniel Varady. They are also requesting reimbursement from the village based on sewer fees charged, damages the suit alleges are more than $50,000.
John “Skip” Kernan, resident and township highway commissioner, said the suit is “long overdue.”
“Most bills have doubled and tripled...and anybody on a fixed income, lower income, heck, I don’t care what sort of income you have,” Kernan said, “an increase like that, that is two and three times the amount from what their normal bill is, you just can’t have that.”
Mueller said he understands that increased rates, which Swansea has experienced as well following the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s mandated expansion of the Swansea sewer plant, are most difficult to people on fixed incomes.
“To me, it wouldn’t be quite as bad if that transportation fee (from the township) wasn’t on there,” he said.
Kernan said residents can learn more about the lawsuit at a public meeting the attorneys and plaintiffs will be holding at 6 p.m. Monday at Sierra Park, 108 Sierra Drive, Shiloh.
He said the goal is to let residents know “there are people out there that are trying to take care of them and that they are being represented,” because the township is to blame for the contract, too, even though the suit is against the village.
Mueller said he thinks residents should have sued the township to remove the transportation fee from their bills.
“I guess they gotta do what they gotta do, but it doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
Contact reporter Lexi Cortes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2514.
Want to go?
What: Public meeting for residents of St. Clair Township
When:6 p.m. Monday
Where: Sierra Park, 108 Sierra Drive, Shiloh