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Lawsuit against Lorain over sewer fees advances

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ELYRIA — A recent decision by a judge could mean a resolution could be coming in the long-running dispute between the city of Lorain and residents of the Hidden Valley development in Amherst Township over sewer fees.

In 2013, two residents from the development filed a lawsuit against the city contending that Lorain 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 in 2012.

Lorain City Council ultimately agreed to lower the rate back to 130 percent, but only after implementing a $10.94 monthly sewer maintenance fee.

At the time of the lawsuit being filed, Matt Dooley, one of the attorneys representing Christine Winrod and Lynda Ashley, the residents named as plaintiffs 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.

The city of Lorain recently filed a motion for summary judgment in the case, which Dooley said was “essentially a vehicle to get the court to throw a case out by finding that there are no disputed facts and that the law favors one side or the other.”

On Tuesday, Judge Mark Betleski denied the motion for summary judgment. He also certified the class of outside-city ratepayers who have had to pay the fees or face shutoff.

“When you file a class-action lawsuit, you call it a class action, but it’s not really a class action until the judge says so,” Dooley said Thursday. “… The next thing is we have to deliver notice of the class. It’s a small class, less than 1,000 people, but we have to deliver an official notice to the class of what the court has found.”

Members of the class also have to have the opportunity to opt out of the class-action suit, though it’s rare that anyone does opt out.

Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer said the decisions by Betleski don’t change the city’s position on the matter.

“It really doesn’t change our viewpoint of the issue at hand,” Ritenauer said. “It doesn’t change what our argument is going to be. In regards to the judge’s decision, we’re evaluating our options in terms of how we’ll move forward and view the decision.

“Simply put, this is discussing how the city can establish its rates for both in-city and out-of-city users.”

One of the city’s options is to appeal Betleski’s ruling to the 9th District Court of Appeals. Ritenauer said he doesn’t know if the city will appeal the ruling, but said he wouldn’t rule it out.

While the decisions made by Betleski allow for the case to move forward, Dooley said the case won’t be moving to trial in the next few weeks. Instead it will take a while for the city to decide whether to appeal and it also will take some time for the official notice of the courts’ decision to be delivered to residents.

Winrod died unexpectedly earlier this year, but Dooley said her “passing, while unfortunate, does not affect the case” continuing through the court system.

Contact Scott Mahoney at (440) 329-7146 or smahoney@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @SMahoneyCT.


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