The attorneys and plaintiffs of a lawsuit related to the controversial sewer services contract between the township and Swansea had a public meeting Monday night to talk to residents affected by the contract.
More than 125 residents attended the meeting held at Sierra Park in Shiloh to ask questions about the suit, as well as the new and increased charges they face under the contract.
St. Clair County Board member Bob Trentman, who resigned from the St. Clair Township board in 2012, and residents Dean Wallen and Daniel Varady hired attorneys John Hipskind and Brady McAninch, of Hipskind & McAninch, LLC. in Belleville, after learning that the sewer rates of about 3,200 St. Clair Township residents would be increasing by an average of $30.50 every two months.
The result is a lawsuit filed against Swansea alleging 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 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 “transport” fee for maintenance of the sewer lines that transport wastewater from the township to Swansea. The contract took effect March 1.
During the meeting, residents talked about not paying their sewer bills in protest of the increased rate, which would result in their water being turned off, and about boycotting Swansea businesses. They also questioned why the township or Supervisor Dave Barnes were not included in the lawsuit.
Resident Patsy Tarvin said she was disappointed to find out that the township is not being sued in addition to Swansea “because the transport fee is an issue.”
“(Paying) 1.3 times should include all the same services that residents receive, including maintenance of our lines,” she said.
The township owns the lines that transport wastewater from the township to the village, but Tarvin said when Swansea took over a portion of the township’s customers, it should have also taken over the lines they used.
The attorneys examined the legal grounds of different options, McAninch told the crowd.
“We thought this was the quickest way to affect actual change in this case,” he said.
Hipskind and McAninch 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.
Swansea Mayor Ken Mueller said Friday he thinks the residents are “suing the wrong people.”
“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.”
McAninch addressed Mueller’s comments during the meeting, saying to the crowd “you all should be flabbergasted that you’re paying these high rates.”
He added that he thinks Mueller was “flabbergasted by the high rate he was able to get.” Hipskind agreed.
“Their (Swansea’s) end-goal was to get a profit,” Hipskind said, “which is not what a municipality should be doing.”
Mueller said Friday there has “always been a profit margin” in sewer services contracts with the township.
A resident asked during the meeting whether Swansea’s sewer services are for-profit. “I would think, given the rate multiplier, they’re for-profit,” McAninch responded.
Another resident asked what Swansea’s justification is for charging township residents at a 1.3 multiplier. McAninch explained that the attorneys do not believe Swansea has a justification at this stage in the litigation process.
McAninch said he could not really answer questions about how long the process will take. “Upwards of a year, sometimes longer,” is an estimate he gave the crowd.
“Unfortunately, litigation is a long process, and we’re just starting,” McAninch said.
One resident asked what the attorneys were “getting out of it (the suit).”
“No one’s paying us,” McAninch said. “We’re doing this on a contingency fee.”
McAninch and Hipskind said they think there was a lack of transparency in the agreement between Swansea and the township.
“We hope, with this lawsuit, to send a message to Swansea, St. Clair Township and all other (municipalities),” Hipskind said.
“Municipalities can’t operate behind closed doors,” McAninch said.
St. Clair Township Trustee Greg Hipskind, John Hipskind’s brother, attended the meeting. He said there were problems on both sides leading up to this contract.
“Two things are going on here: you have Swansea pushing their contract onto the township residents, and within St. Clair Township itself, you have deception and miscommunication,” Greg Hipskind said.
“I hope this lawsuit is successful,” he added. “Hopefully we can turn a page.”
Contact reporter Lexi Cortes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2514.