Judge halts Cleveland water charges for Westlake customers

CLEVELAND -- Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael K. Astrab has granted an injunction which stops the City of Cleveland's Department of Public Works and/or the Cleveland Water Department, from issuing any Westlake customer any billing statement containing any fixed charges related to Cleveland Ordinance 1354-13.

Astrab said the City of Westlake made a clear and convincing case and he is requiring the City of Cleveland to maintain the status quo until there can a be a full and final hearing.

Cleveland passed the ordinance on Nov. 11, 2013, and it became law Dec. 11, 2013. Bills were set to be mailed on Feb. 15, 2014.

On Nov. 14, the Cityof Westlake has already filed a motion for a temporary restraining order.

City of Cleveland Law Director Barbara Langhenry responded to Astrab's ruling.

""We are disappointed and respectfully disagree with Judge Astrab's ruling. The cost recovery charge related to the City of Westlake taking steps to leave the Cleveland Water system is a business decision designed to protect our remaining customers. We are considering all of our available legal options to protect the rate payers in the more than 70 other communities in the Cleveland Water system," Langhenry wrote, in an email.

The City of Westlake wants to block Cleveland from charging Westlake water customers additional fees.

Cleveland's water system intends to recover $58.8 million from Westlake water customers for costs it will face if Westlake follows through changing its water supplier to Avon Lake.

And that could mean dramatically higher bills for Westlake customers.

Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough has been pushing for a switch. The two cities have been exchanging conflicting studies and angry words for a couple years.

Cleveland's water system asked City Council to pass measures which will allow it to raise Westlake water rates effective January 1, 2014.

Typical homeowners would see their bills jump almost $1,300/year over a five-year period.

Cleveland says it must recover Westlake's fair share of costs made to improve service in that community. That's $39.8 million.

If Westlake secedes from the Cleveland water system, there will be an impact on neighboring communities, including Bay Village, Fairview Park, North Olmsted and Rocky River.

The impact of it disconnecting would mean another $19 million in costs, Cleveland says.

The Water Department says it's unfair for other communities and customers to absorb that cost.

Westlake officials sought to leave Cleveland's system claiming the switch would mean better service and save money.

Cleveland supplies more than 70 communities in five counties.

It's fighting a battle of having fewer customers using less water. Losing a customer the size of Westlake would be a big hit and dangerous precedent.

Westlake is considering finding another water supplier. Cleveland says the fees would be reimbursement for system infrastructure costs like pipelines.

The Cleveland City Council approved the fees to recover about $19 million for rerouting pipes to other suburbs and for nearly $40 million in infrastructure projects.

In Astrab's order, he wrote: "Clearly the Court understands the ramifications of this decision and has heavily considered the public interests involved. There is no question in the Court's mind, however that the public interest is being served by reaching the decision contained herein. There are literally thousands of citizens who did not ask for these charges, and a great many whom may be seriously burdened by the imposition thereof."

"The fact that this Court has found that the City of Cleveland does not appear to have the authority to prospectively issue these charges for an event that has not even taken place yet put even has more emphasis on the public interest considerations of this decision. Further, in addressing the aspect of interfering with the operation of another department of government, nearly all of the relevant issues that the Complaint for Declaratory Judgment seeks resolution of are factors that weighed into the passage of Cleveland Ordinance 1354-13. The Court is of the position that the only option to maintain the status quo pending that full and final hearing is to enjoin Cleveland from issuing invoices to Westlake citizens that reflect the fixed charges."


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