ELYRIA — Two residents of the Hidden Valley development in Amherst Township filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Lorain on Tuesday as part of a long-running dispute over increased sewer fees.
The lawsuit contends that the city has been overcharging residents of the development for decades for sewer services.
Hidden Valley residents had long paid 130 percent over what in-city sewer customers were paying for sewer service until the city raised the rate to 200 percent last year. The sudden jump in bills outraged residents, who have pushed the Lorain County commissioners, who aren’t parties to the lawsuit, to fight the hike on their behalf.
Lorain City Council ultimately agreed to lower the rate back to 130 percent, but only after implementing a $10.94 monthly sewer maintenance fee that took effect in January.
Despite efforts to resolve the dispute without going to court, the two sides reached an impasse, Hidden Valley resident Christine Winrod said.
“We feel that when there’s a contract that was put in place, it should be honored,” she said.
Matt Dooley, one of the attorneys representing Winrod and Lynda Ashley, the other resident named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that contracts between Lorain and the developer of Hidden Valley from the 1970s dictate that the Hidden Valley property owners shouldn’t be charged any more for sewer service than Lorain residents.
“At the end of the day, Hidden Valley residents aren’t going to pay more than city folks,” Dooley said.
Dooley said there are roughly 850 property owners being overcharged and they should be reimbursed for the higher rates they’ve been paying for years. He said he couldn’t say Tuesday exactly how the case could impact former property owners who have since moved.
County Commissioner Tom Williams, who has pushed for the county to challenge the rate hikes, has estimated that the city could end up being on the hook for millions of dollars in back fees if the township residents are successful.
Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer said the city believes it is perfectly within its rights to charge customers outside the city limits more than those who live inside the city proper.
“We have a difference of opinion, that’s the way it is,” he said.
Ritenauer said charging more for customers in outlying service areas isn’t an uncommon practice around the state. For instance, he said Amherst charges those making use of its city utilities outside the city limits more than it charges its residents.
He said the city offered to drop the monthly maintenance fee and increase the Hidden Valley sewer rates to 150 percent of what city customers pay, but that arrangement was rejected. Still, he said he’s hopeful some sort of deal can be worked out to avoid protracted and expensive litigation.
“There’s potential for negotiation and compromise on our side,” he said.
Williams said the dispute never should have reached the court system.
“I think it’s unfortunate that this occurred, and it’s something that should have been easily resolved by the city of Lorain,” he said.
Dooley said the city appears to be trying to supplement its coffers at the expense of township customers.
He pointed to a September finding by the Ohio Auditor David Yost that determined Lorain made improper transfers from its Water Fund and Water Pollutions Control Fund to the city’s Economic Development fund as evidence the city is using extra utility money for other purposes.
City officials have said they believed the transfers were legal and plan to fight an order from Yost to return $100,000 to the original accounts.
“They were really just finding a way to generate more money for economic development,” Dooley said.