Metro-East News

Swansea files motion to dismiss St. Clair Township residents’ lawsuit over sewer rates

The residents’ suit says their higher sewer bills are “discriminatory.”
The residents’ suit says their higher sewer bills are “discriminatory.”

Swansea has responded to a lawsuit filed by three St. Clair Township residents who allege the higher utility rates charged to approximately 3,200 township residents whose wastewater is treated by Swansea’s sewer plant are “discriminatory.” The village filed a motion to dismiss the complaint.

For two months now, these residents have faced a sewer bill increase of about $30.50 on average. A St. Clair County official says the hike has already led to serious penny-pinching in some St. Clair Township neighborhoods.

“I’ve got calls from neighborhoods where they’re getting their water shut off, they can’t buy back-to-school supplies for their kids. It’s sad,” said Bob Trentman, a member of the St. Clair County Board.

Swansea took over billing of the residents on March 1 under an agreement between the village and the township. Bills are sent out every other month, and the first one from the village went out in May.

Township residents are charged 1.3 times the rate that village residents pay, in addition to a $7.34 monthly fee charged by the township to maintain the sewer lines that transport the wastewater to Swansea’s plant. The township and the village negotiated for about six years before signing the current Swansea-St. Clair Township Sewer Services Agreement, which is a 25-year contract.

Trentman, who resigned from the township board of trustees three years ago, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Swansea.

Swansea Mayor Ken Mueller declined to comment on the suit and deferred questions to Swansea’s attorney, Mark Rohr of Crowder & Scoggins, Ltd., in Columbia. Rohr also declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Mueller has said previously the Village 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. 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 its sewer customers who live outside city limits.

According to Swansea’s motion, which was filed Thursday, the plaintiffs’ complaint should be dismissed because:

▪  Swansea alleges St. Clair Township needs to be a party to the suit.

▪  Swansea alleges the township residents’ claim that Illinois law prohibits municipalities from charging a higher rate without justification is not supported by “sufficient facts” because the suit does not cite specific provisions of Illinois law.

Without the specific provisions, Swansea’s attorney states he cannot reasonably prepare an adequate defense, according to the motion.

One of the attorneys representing the township residents, Brady McAninch, of Hipskind & McAninch, LLC. in Belleville, said evidence exists to support the claim.

“There have been multiple cases since the 1980s of residents filing suit for this exact issue, which is a municipality exercising its force and giving unfair and unjustifiably high rates to individuals,” he said.

Township resident Dean Wallen, a plaintiff in the suit, said he believes the contract has “turned out to be lucrative for Swansea.”

“Basically, Swansea’s getting the gold and these other 3,100 or so folks are getting the shaft. That’s really what it boils down to,” he said. Wallen is also the township park board president.

Mueller has said previously there has “always been a profit margin” in sewer services contracts with the township.

Township resident Dan Varady, another plaintiff in the suit, said he considered moving out of St. Clair Township and currently “boycotts” Swansea because of the rate hike.

“We have to come up with this extra money every other month on our sewer bill. I don’t shop Swansea anymore. I’m not afraid to admit that,” Varady said.

These township residents’ wastewater had been treated by the Swansea sewer plant for many years. Flow studies conducted by both St. Clair Township and Swansea during contract negotiations showed that township residents made up about one-third of the usage of Swansea’s plant.

However, the township billed residents before the new contract took effect, and their previous rate was $24.66.

“When they go from $24.66 to $56 or $57, that is considered a gouge as far as I’m concerned,” Wallen said.

Varady said the people in his neighborhood have expressed similar disapproval of the rate increase.

“The word ‘gouge’ has been used. I don’t even have to say it. They say it,” Varady said.

Here’s a breakdown of the cost to township residents:

▪  Sewer usage fee: $3.22 per 100 cubic feet of water used

▪  Sewer debt fee: $32.24 flat fee

The sewer debt fee is the rate that Swansea increased for township residents. It is used to pay for the treatment of the water. Swansea residents are charged $24.80.

During negotiations, attorneys for both Swansea and St. Clair Township agreed that it was within the village’s legal rights to charge customers who live outside city limits more than city residents.

John Hipskind, who represents the plaintiffs along with McAninch, said what the attorneys are looking for from Swansea is justification for the higher rate charged to township residents.

“At this time, we haven’t seen anything that substantiates these fees, and I think anybody can see that almost double the cost that St. Clair Township residents are facing compared to that of the people of Swansea is unfair and excessive,” Hipskind said. “I just don’t see how that much of a difference could be rationally related to the services, which they’re supposed to be providing.”

In addition to treating Swansea residents’ wastewater, the village also maintains the lines that transport the wastewater to the plant. The village does not, however, maintain township lines that transport wastewater to the Swansea plant, which the attorneys point to as evidence of less service.

In the meantime, the St. Clair Township Board of Trustees continues to discuss its options with regard to the contract. The goal of the board is, ultimately, to reopen negotiations with the village, an outcome Hipskind and McAninch say they welcome, too.

“We certainly haven’t hidden that that’s been our goal the whole time,” McAninch said of seeing the municipalities renegotiate the contract.

Mueller said the Village Board would “evaluate anything that they (township trustees) send.”

Contact reporter Lexi Cortes at acortes@bnd.com or 618-239-2528. Follow her on Twitter: @lexicortes.

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