UPDATED 2PM TUESDAY NOV 19, 2013
By Kevin Kelley
As expected, attorneys for the city of Westlake have filed a motion in Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court to block the city of Cleveland from billing the suburb’s water customers for additional fees associated with a possible departure of Westlake from its water system.
A hearing on the motion for a temporary restraining order is scheduled for Wednesday morning before Judge Michael Astrab.
In its court motion, Westlake’s attorneys say Cleveland is treating Westlake water customers “as collateral damage in its unfounded war on Westlake all because Westlake is merely evaluating the economic benefit of additional (and competitive) water sources.”
“Cleveland’s harassing conduct has caused anxiety, apprehension and angst among innocent Westlake residents,” the motion states. It notes that Clough, in an affidavit, said Westlake residents call him constantly worried about their inability to pay the new water fees.
Maureen Harper, chief of communications for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, told West Life that Cleveland declined to comment on Westlake’s motion.
On Nov. 11, Cleveland City Council unanimously passed legislation that would charge Westlake residential customers an additional $291 each quarter for five years. The charges, Cleveland officials said, are necessary to pay for reconnecting water pipes to maintain service to nearby communities. The costs would also serve as reimbursements for water infrastructure investments Cleveland has made in Westlake through the years, Cleveland officials said.
Cleveland officials, along with members of Cleveland City Council, repeatedly said they could not allow residents of Cleveland and the water system’s other communities pay for costs associated with a departure by Westlake.
Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough has maintained such charges are illegal and a breach of the water service agreement his suburb has with Cleveland.
“We have asked the court for a temporary restraining order to prevent Cleveland from imposing these illegal charges and will continue to do everything we can to stop this action,” Clough said in a statement released Thursday.
The new charges were first announced by the Cleveland Division of Water at the end of September. Cleveland officials justified the charges based on a May 2 letter from Clough to Cleveland Public Utilities Director Paul Bender that said Westlake could not purchase additional water from Cleveland after March 2015. Cleveland officials said this was a notice of termination by Westlake. Clough said the letter simply noted when the current water service agreement ends. In the same letter, Clough said Westlake was interested in discussing a new agreement.
Clough has maintained that the current water service agreement ends in March 2015 because the Westlake City Charter does not permit contracts to run more than 25 years.
Bender said the impasse could be solved if Clough withdrew the May 2 letter. When Clough did that, Cleveland officials said the suburb had already taken actions indicative of a departure from the water system.
“We have advised Cleveland since 2007 that our water supply contract with them expires in 2015,” Clough said in his statement Thursday. ”From 2007 until now we have sought a new contract with new terms and conditions. Cleveland’s response has been to claim that it has some right to charge Westlake residents millions of dollars.”
Clough’s statement did not close the door on future negotiations with Cleveland.
“If it is economically feasible, Westlake would like to remain a customer of Cleveland Water,” Clough said. “As mayor, it is my responsibility to provide the citizens of Westlake with the best possible contract assuring they have safe, reliable and high-quality water and service at the most reasonable and affordable rate now and in the future. It is really that simple.”
In the same statement, Westlake City Council President Mike Killeen delineated the options the suburb is currently considering: “continue spending more for water rather than realize the savings from other suppliers,” extend the current agreement with Cleveland until settlement is negotiated, or attempt to purchase water from two suppliers.
Killeen said the matter will be settled in court if necessary.
Westlake officials have been exploring the feasibility of buying water from Avon Lake Municipal Utilities for several years. The suburb would like to set up its own water department and manage the upkeep of the water supply infrastructure itself rather than depend on Cleveland. Westlake officials have also discussed purchasing water in bulk from Cleveland as a “master meter” community, as communities like Lakewood do. Clough has said the suburb would like the option of buying water from both Cleveland’s Division of Water and Avon Lake Municipal Utilities.
Cleveland officials have said they will not sell water to Westlake if it also buys water from Avon Lake Municipal Utilities.
In Thursday’s statement, Clough said a study by the city’s finance, service and engineering departments to determine the suburb’s best course of action is expected by Dec. 15. The study involves a review of earlier data presented by engineering and financial consultants that has been hired by Westlake.
Thursday’s press release also noted some of the gripes Westlake has had with Cleveland’s Division of Water over the years, namely higher rates than those paid by customers of Avon Lake Municipal Utilities and poor customer service.