Metro-East News

Suit against Swansea over sewer rates will move forward

From left: Attorneys John Hipskind, and far right, Brady McAninch of Hipskind & McAninch, LLC., and St. Clair Township Highway Commissioner, John “Skip” Kernan (center) talk to a reporter about the lawsuit related to the controversial sewer services contract between St. Clair Township and Swansea. File Photo - June 5, 2015
From left: Attorneys John Hipskind, and far right, Brady McAninch of Hipskind & McAninch, LLC., and St. Clair Township Highway Commissioner, John “Skip” Kernan (center) talk to a reporter about the lawsuit related to the controversial sewer services contract between St. Clair Township and Swansea. File Photo - June 5, 2015 News-Democrat

Swansea’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by three St. Clair Township residents has been denied in its entirety.

The motion was presented to St. Clair County Judge Vincent Lopinot Tuesday morning. The township residents allege the higher utility rates charged to approximately 3,200 residents in St. Clair Township whose wastewater is treated by Swansea’s sewer plant are “discriminatory” and illegal.

They are requesting reimbursement from the village based on sewer fees charged, damages the suit alleges exceed $50,000.

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.

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.

Swansea Mayor Ken Mueller on Wednesday declined to comment on the specifics of the litigation.

“The lawyer’s handling it, and the lawyer will be handling it,” he said. “That’s about all I can say.”

The village’s attorney, Mark Rohr of Columbia, declined comment.

The motion to dismiss, which was filed in August, states 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.

The plaintiffs in the suit include Bob Trentman, Daniel Varady and Dean Wallen. Trentman is a St. Clair County Board member and was a St. Clair Township trustee until 2012. Wallen currently serves as the St. Clair Township Park Board’s president.

Earlier this month, the plaintiffs’ attorneys, John Hipskind and Brady McAninch of Belleville, filed a response to the village’s motion.

The response calls Swansea’s motion to dismiss “unsupportable” and stated it was filed “in an effort to delay the resolution of this case in order to continue to exert its monopolistic leverage and bill, charge, and collect these discriminatorily high sewer fees from the residents and landowners of St. Clair Township.”

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. On average, township residents’ bills have gone up about $15 per month.

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 for 4,000 gallons of water used, plus $5.07 for each additional 1,000 gallons used.

The new cost to township residents billed by Swansea is a $32.24 flat fee, plus $3.22 per 100 cubic feet of water used.

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.

The flat fee, called 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.

Although the St. Clair Township Board of Trustees agreed to the rate increase, the plaintiffs argue that the township does not need to be a party to the suit because:

▪  The issue in the case is not based on a relationship between Swansea and the board.

▪  The board does not have “an interest at issue that it believed was not being adequately defended.”

During contract 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.

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.

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

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