By Kevin Kelley
City officials have scheduled an informational meeting for residents regarding Westlake’s dispute with the city of Cleveland’s Division of Water for 7 p.m. today (Wednesday, Oct. 9) at the Westlake Recreation Center, 28955 Hilliard Blvd.
The dispute came to a head last week after Cleveland officials announced that its water department would charge Westlake residents an additional $291 per quarter for costs associated with the suburb’s purported departure from the water system. The Cleveland Division of Water also mailed a letter to all Westlake water customers announcing the plans to impose the additional fees. Cleveland officials say a May 2, 2013, letter from Westlake was a notification that Westlake plans to terminate its relationship with the Cleveland water system. The proposed quarterly fees are needed, Cleveland officials say, to recover its investments in the waterlines in the suburb and to make additional infrastructure changes to ensure service continues to communities that border Westlake. Altogether, the charges total $58.5 million, Cleveland officials said.
Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough said he is not going to allow the fee increase to be imposed without a fight.
Speaking Oct. 1, the day after officials with the Cleveland Division of Water asked that city’s council to add the substantial fees to Westlake residents’ water bills, Clough said all options are on the table to fight the proposal.
“I will take every means possible (to fight it), including asking for a restraint of trade (lawsuit), getting the Congress involved and also trying to get the (state) attorney general involved,” Clough said. “This is not right to punish the citizens of Westlake just because they want us to only buy water from them.”
Clough has long maintained there is no legal or contractual basis for Cleveland’s monetary claims.
In the summer of 2012, Westlake filed a motion in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court to obtain a declaratory judgment on what rights and obligations Westlake enjoys under its agreements with Cleveland’s Division of Water. That matter is currently before Judge Michael Astrab. A meeting at the court between the two parties was scheduled for Monday morning.
Clough said he was disappointed with the way the city of Cleveland is now handling the dispute.
“They knew we went to court to interpret the contract,” Clough said. “They’re not even waiting for a judge’s interpretation. They’re trying to push their interpretation on everybody, and that’s not appropriate.”
The Westlake mayor said he was taken by surprise by Cleveland’s proposal to bill Westlake residents directly for these alleged costs.
“I think the city of Cleveland is trying to bully the city of Westlake,” the mayor said. “I think they’re trying to use scare tactics.” He added that Cleveland officials should sit down and negotiate the matter.
In response to questions about the dispute with Westlake, Maureen R. Harper, the chief of communications for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, declined to comment directly, saying the matters were directly related to the court filing by Westlake.
Cleveland City Council President Martin Sweeney would not give an indication of whether the proposal to add the charges to Westlake residents has much support among council members. He said the first in-depth discussions on the proposal would likely take place at an Oct. 16 council committee meeting.
“We’re looking forward to doing our due diligence through the committee process,” Sweeney told West Life. He also joked that he might exempt his parents, who live in Westlake, from paying the additional fees.
Contrary to statements from Cleveland officials, Clough said Westlake has not indicated it will terminate its agreement with Cleveland Water. For the past several years, the suburb has been studying the feasibility of setting up its own water department and obtaining water from Avon Lake Municipal Utilities.
In a May 2 letter to Paul Bender, Cleveland’s director of public utilities, Clough states “this letter will also serve as official notice that the City of Westlake cannot and will not continue with the purchase of water from the City of Cleveland after the expiration of the 25 year period … However, as stated in previous correspondence, we would certainly entertain a competitive proposal and a new agreement to purchase potable water in bulk from the City of Cleveland.” Earlier in the letter, Clough stated that the 25-year period expires on March 19, 2015.
Clough has said his suburb could provide better water service at better rates to its own residents than Cleveland. On Thursday, Clough told reporters of the history of service problems Westlake has experience with Cleveland’s Division of Water, including its failure to fix fire hydrants.
Clough said his city has also requested a proposal from Cleveland for obtaining water in bulk and becoming a “master meter” community. Cleveland currently supplies five communities – Bedford, Chagrin Falls, Lakewood, Cleveland Heights and Geauga County – with water at bulk rates. Clough said Cleveland has failed to respond to his request.
The Westlake mayor said he would like his city to be able to purchase water from both Cleveland and Avon Lake. Westlake officials have long said purchasing water from Avon Lake will most likely be cheaper than from Cleveland.
In the past, Cleveland officials have said that technical issues and concerns about water safety would prevent them from selling water into a system that also obtained water from another source.
Clough said he would not rule out purchasing water in bulk from Cleveland alone. But the decision to purchase in bulk from Cleveland would be based on price, the mayor said. Westlake has asked for bulk water proposals from both Avon Lake Municipal Utilities and Cleveland Water, Clough noted.
Cleveland is pushing an agreement with all the communities it serves in which ownership of water distribution lines smaller than 20 inches in diameter, currently owned by each suburb, is transferred to Cleveland’s Division of Water. The agreement would also consist of an economic agreement in which suburbs and Cleveland agree to limit the pursuit of businesses currently within the others’ boundaries.
Clough said Westlake has no interest in signing such an agreement. The city has invested a considerable amount of money in Westlake’s water infrastructure, the mayor said. In addition, Clough said, Westlake will do a better job than Cleveland with waterline maintenance and replacement if it operates its own water department.
At Thursday night’s council meeting, council President Mike Killeen said the suburb would not proceed with any switch of water suppliers without a ruling from the court. He also said Westlake would not switch if city officials could not stop the $291 quarterly fee from being imposed.
Also at Thursday night’s council meeting, members voted unanimously to increase the amount of money being paid to the suburb’s outside legal counsel to handle the dispute with Cleveland’s Division of Water. Westlake has already paid about $170,000 to the law firm of Stumphauzer, O’Toole, McLaughlin, McGlamery & Loughman Co., LPA, Clough told West Life. The approved ordinance allows a maximum of $330,000 to be paid to the law firm.