By Ed Runyan
The attorney for a Brookfield couple who owns land on Belmont Avenue in Liberty says a Trumbull County judge’s ruling means his clients and others owe nothing for a sewer line serving their properties.
Atty. Thomas Schubert of Warren, who represented Gregory and Connie Schultz, said the ruling by Judge W. Wyatt McKay of Trumbull County Common Pleas Court means his clients don’t have to pay the $48,766 the county charged them in 2010.
The couple owns three parcels in what the county sanitary engineer’s office calls Squaw Creek Interceptor Phase 1. It is from Tibbetts- Wick Road north to Crews Hood Road.
“Anybody in Phase 1 who paid for a sewer line is entitled to a refund of money paid for it, or if they didn’t pay it, they shouldn’t have to pay it,” Schubert said.
County officials said Phase 1 was $1.3 million and served 28 property owners. The county used a low-interest loan of $608,121 to pay for the part of the project not covered by grants.
Judge McKay ruled in favor of Schubert’s clients on the grounds that the county had not followed Ohio law in the way it carried out Phase 1.
The county used a method typical for reimbursing housing contractors for sewers they build for their customers — when the only “contractor” in this case was the county.
The law the county cited for its authority to do this “is clearly designed for instances where a private individual, organization, or entity applies for permission to use county easements to construct sewer lines,” Judge McKay’s decision says.
“In this case, the opposite has clearly happened, as Trumbull County is initiating this project in response to its consent decree with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.”
The area involved is among 15 “unsewered areas of concern” where the county agreed to build sewers to alleviate environmental hazards caused by poorly functioning septic systems.
The county, through Atty. Jim Brutz, assistant Trumbull County prosecutor, appealed the July decision to the Ohio 11th District Court of Appeals, but Brutz dismissed the appeal.
When asked what the implications of the lawsuit are for people in Phase 1 and other county sewer projects, Brutz said this week he could not comment.
Paul Heltzel, Trumbull County commissioner, said he doesn’t know whether the decision will change the way the county handles future sewer projects or whether it will delay any projects.
Schubert said he doesn’t think the county continued to use that same method in other sewer projects, but the county is responsible for the costs associated with Phase 1.
“The county put this in, and they’re responsible for it,” he said. “They did it illegally, so the court ruled they can’t collect from Mr. Schultz.”
On May 7, 2010, the county sent letters to the Schultzes, asking for $48,766 for “reimbursements” for the sewers, saying the couple had 90 days to pay the whole amount or be charged $48,766 plus interest over 20 years, bringing the total to $76,853.
The couple got a loan, but not until after the 90 days passed. The Schultzes then received a second bill for $76,853 and then was charged criminally in Girard Municipal Court by the Trumbull County Board of Health with failing to obey a health-department order.
Judge Jeffrey Adler of Girard Municipal Court put the criminal charge on hold while the Schultzes’ lawsuit was pending. The criminal charge will now be dropped, Schubert said.
Schubert said the way the county handled this project was “somewhat extortive” in the sense that “If you don’t pay, you’ll be prosecuted.”
The people in Phase 1 were not given the opportunity to pay the sewer costs through an assessment on their property taxes like in some other sewer projects, Schubert said.
In his ruling, Judge McKay said the way the county engineer attempted to operate the Phase 1 project gave the county an “unauthorized, unreasonable ... and outrageous windfall at the expense of its citizenry by charging 20 years worth of interest.”
The fact that the sewer project was a “good deal” for the property owners in that grant funds paid part of it doesn’t matter, the judge said.
Judge McKay has not yet ruled on a magistrate’s recommendation in another case that 34 property owners not have to pay for sewers in the Mineral Ridge and Vienna areas.