For over three hours, over $200 in cash and a few coins sat on the edge of a table in a Hamilton County Chancery Courtroom as an East Ridge couple and an attorney for the county’s sewer authority argued about how that money could change hands.
A trial that began Thursday in Chancellor Jeffery Atherton’s courtroom focused on whether Rick and Anna Grace Carpenter owe the Hamilton County Water and Waste Water Treatment Authority hundreds in old sewer bills.
The two-year battle has gained attention because the couple says they have tried to pay, but haven’t found a way to pay in cash without incurring a $1 to $3 fee for each payment — something they refuse to do on principle.
The authority sued the Carpenters in March over a 2-year-old sewer balance of $563.37 and has sought to issue a restraining order against Rick Carpenter for the number of times he can call the authority.
While the Carpenters’ dispute with the WWTA has lasted for two years, its resolution will likely not come until at least next Tuesday, when the trial has been scheduled to continue.
In opening arguments, WWTA attorney Chris Clem called the dispute a “simple collection matter.”
But the Carpenters, who are representing themselves in the suit, say the authority is abusing its power by not providing a way for them to pay cash for sewer services without adding to the cost.
The WWTA contracts its bill collection to a California-based company called Enco, and sewer customers must pay by direct bill-pay or a check if they want to avoid a processing fee.
The Carpenters do not have a bank account and do not want to open one. And for people like them, the WWTA does not have the authority to require such fees, the couple argued.
The WWTA is also asking the court to place a restraining order on Carpenter that would limit the number of times per month he could call the sewer authority, saying that he has left “harassing” messages.
During the trial, the WWTA executive director played a tape of two of 35 messages he said Rick Carpenter left him over a six-week period.
In one of the recordings, Carpenter asks Grimes — who is black — whether he is not returning Carpenter’s calls “because I am white.”
During his cross-examination of Grimes, Carpenter indicated that at the time he was growing increasingly agitated that the sewer authority had turned off his family’s water, and that Grimes had never called him back.
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharri email@example.com or 423-757-6673.