By Kevin Kelley
In an often scathing opinion, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Astrab granted the city of Westlake’s request for a preliminary injunction against Cleveland’s plans to bill the suburb’s water customers an additional $291 a quarter. The additional charges were necessary, Cleveland officials said, to pay for costs associated with the suburb’s alleged plans to leave the city’s regional water system.
On nearly every legal issue, the judge found in favor of Westlake, often using strong wording. The judge’s 37-page opinion can be viewed as nothing short of a near-total victory by the suburb.
Cleveland’s billing plans were based on a section of the water service agreement allowing additional charges be applied against customers taking steps to leave the system. In his opinion, Astrab repeatedly found that Westlake had not taken steps to leave the system.
“With no separation [of Westlake from the Cleveland water system], there are no costs to be incurred,” Astrab wrote. “As such, how can the citizens of Westlake be charged for something that has not yet happened?”
The judge also found that Cleveland’s justification for the amount it planned to charge Westlake customers were “not shown to be sufficiently accurate” and included “inconsistencies in calculation.”
Cleveland based its planned billing of Westlake residents on the suburb’s discussions with Avon Lake Municipal Utilities about becoming a water supplier. But Astrab said Westlake officials were simply showing prudence and due diligence in fully investigating alternate supplier plans. The judge criticized Cleveland officials for paying “lip service” to Westlake officials’ requests for information on becoming a master meter community, or bulk purchaser, of water from Cleveland. Astrab found that attempts by Westlake to become a master meter community did not constitute a step by Westlake to leave the Cleveland system, an issue on which even two high ranking Cleveland city officials disagreed during testimony.
Cleveland Law Director Barbara Langhenry issued this statement Friday afternoon in response to the judge’s ruling:
“We are disappointed and respectfully disagree with Judge Astrab’s ruling,” Langhenry said. “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.”
Astrba’s injunction against additional billing of Westlake residents will remain in effect until a further order from the court. Cleveland had planned to mail the bills to Westlake residents next week.