Customer, WWTA clash over cash: Shouldn't have to pay a fee, he says; authority sues over bill

Customer, WWTA clash over cash: Shouldn't have to pay a fee, he says; authority sues over bill

March 28th, 2014 by Louie Brogdon in Local - Breaking News

POLL: Should a customer have to pay a fee in order to pay a bill in cash?

An East Ridge man's two-year fight to be allowed to pay his sewer bill in cash without a fee has landed in Chancery Court.

The Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority filed a lawsuit March 21 against Rick Carpenter and his wife, saying the couple hasn't paid their sewer bills since 2012.

WWTA is asking the court to force Carpenter to pay his outstanding $563.37 bill.

Carpenter says the bill debt has piled up for good reason -- but not because he hasn't tried to pay. He just doesn't think it should cost him extra to pay cash.

It is impossible for a WWTA sewer customer to pay a bill in cash without being charged a $1 to $3 processing fee of some kind. WWTA doesn't accept payments at its office but it contracts with 22 retail locations that do.

Those locations take cash, or other forms of payment, from residents and pay the bills over the Internet. The businesses are charged processing fees for the transactions by ENCO Utility Services, a California company WWTA contracts with to handle its sewer billing. Instead of absorbing the fees, retail shops pass part or all of them on to customers.

Fees can be avoided by mailing a check, but Carpenter doesn't have a bank account, and he doesn't want to open one.

"I should not have to pay for outside goods and services to pay my sewer bill. I should be able to pay with cash -- legal tender -- to pay my bills," he said.

Chris Clem, WWTA's attorney, said Carpenter has been to WWTA board meetings numerous times explaining his problem, and board members have tried to help. One suggested a variance specifically for Carpenter that waived the processing fee for him. Another went further.

"We had a board member who offered to meet him at Walmart and pay the extra $1 fee," Clem said.

The lawsuit also asks the court to prohibit Carpenter from turning his water on without permission. WWTA had Tennessee American Water cut his service twice after Carpenter stopped paying his sewer bill.

The first time was in late 2013. Carpenter said he felt his service was canceled illegally, so he went to the line and turned his water back on.

Early this year, Tennessee American turned off the water again and installed a lock. Carpenter cut the lock and turned the water back on, according to the lawsuit. After that, Tennessee American removed the meter altogether.

Rick Carpenter, 48, puts another protest sign in front of his East Ridge duplex in this file photo. Carpenter and his wife, Anna Grace, 35, have no running water after their meter was removed for failing to pay sewer fees on their water bill.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Clem said other residents are behind on their sewer payments, but Carpenter is the first the authority has taken to court.

He said shutting off water for unpaid sewer bills is allowed under state law.

"We have 95 counties in Tennessee. In 93 counties, the water [and] sewer services are municipally owned. We are one of two counties that have private water companies. Sewer is the odd man out, because we can't turn off your sewer [for unpaid bills]," Clem said.

Carpenter said that shouldn't be allowed. His Tennessee American water bill is up to date because he can pay it with cash.

Daphne Kirksey, a spokeswoman for Tennessee American, said residents can come into the Electric Power Board in downtown Chattanooga and pay their bills in cash, with no extra fee.

Residents who pay online are charged processing fees for e-checks or credit cards.

"Eighty-five percent of utilities do this. The idea being customers aren't subsidizing other customers who are using that form of payment," Kirksey said.

Kirksey also said Thursday the water company has not taken any legal action against Carpenter.

But on Friday, Carpenter received a letter from a Tennessee American attorney requesting that Carpenter "no longer contact any of our employees directly relative to your claim that you should be allowed to pay your sewer bill to your sewer provider in cash."

EPB spokesman John Pless said WWTA inquired more than a year ago about having EPB taking over its billing, too.

"We were approached with the idea by WWTA. We looked at it and we were willing to do it. But that would take a great deal of resources in time and money. WWTA chose to go with another option," Pless said.

That was around the time Tennessee American was getting out of the sewer business, and time may have been a factor, Pless said.

"It would take us about a year to get everything up and running properly. We would have to put out bids for software and go through that process," he said.

Clem said Wednesday WWTA has no plans to open a cash window on its own.

"At this point we've determined it's well over $100,000 to set up a cash window. He's the only one demanding this. We don't accept any payments. We don't take checks, we don't take credit cards, we take literally no payments," Clem said.

The last request of the lawsuit asks the court to restrain Carpenter from "harassing WWTA, WWTA staff, WWTA board members or WWTA attorney with phone calls, emails or faxes."

The lawsuit claims Carpenter called WWTA offices 63 times over six weeks. And he called county government offices 101 times from Feb. 3 to March 21. This, the filing claims, shows the calls were made in an "offensively repetitious manner" and were intended to "knowingly annoy or alarm" officials.

Clem also said Carpenter has personally threatened him. But he said the WWTA wasn't seeking to hamper Carpenter's right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

"We don't mind him showing up at our meetings, as long as he's polite," Clem said.

Carpenter says he never intended to threaten anyone, but he is frustrated over the billing fight.

In any case, Hamilton County Chancery Court takes cash.

Clem said if the bill is paid, the bulk of the complaint would be dropped.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon @timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.