East Ridge paying-in-cash WWTA case may be settled by judge

East Ridge paying-in-cash WWTA case may be settled by judge

May 15th, 2014 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

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.

Rick Carpenter, 48, puts another protest sign in...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

One East Ridge man's two-year battle against the sewer authority may soon end.

At a trial set for today, Chancellor Jeffery Atherton could decide whether Rick Carpenter and his wife will have to pay the Hamilton County Water and Waste Water Treatment Authority up to $700 for old sewer bills - and whether the authority has to start accepting cash payments for customers who want to avoid paying service fees.

The authority sued Carpenter and his wife, Anna Grace Carpenter, in March over a $563.37 sewer balance that was more than two years old. The WWTA says that total is now $700.

But Rick Carpenter, who is not a lawyer and is representing himself in the lawsuit, says the balance wouldn't exist if he could pay his bill in cash without a service fee. Further, he says, since the authority has refused to take his money, the debt is discharged.

"They have refused the money, and in that case I think the debt is dissolved," Carpenter said after a hearing on the case Monday.

The WWTA contracts its bill collection to a California-based company called ENCO, and sewer customers can't avoid paying a $1 to $3 processing fee unless they mail checks. The WWTA doesn't accept payments of any kind, but there are 22 local contracted retail locations that will - for a fee.

Carpenter, who filed a counter-complaint against WWTA in April, said he hopes the case will shed light on how he says the authority is abusing its power.

He argues that an agreement between WWTA and Tennessee American Water Co. allowing the utility to shut off water to residents who don't pay their sewer bills is bogus.

Carpenter keeps his water bill paid up, because he can pay the water company in cash.

He said WWTA should set up a cash window at its downtown Chattanooga office - or somewhere - so residents can come pay their sewer bills without extra fees.

But WWTA attorney Chris Clem said that's just not feasible.

The authority estimates operating a payment window would cost ratepayers $100,000 a year. Clem, who is also a CPA, said Friday that would mean WWTA's 26,000 area customers would see a $0.32 increase on each of their monthly bills.

"What Mr. Carpenter is insisting on is that we open a cash office; that would still cost the ratepayers," Clem said. "I don't question Mr. Carpenter's sincerity, I just question the accounting for it."

Clem also said Chancery Court is the wrong place to deal with Carpenter's issues about sewer billing. Those matters should be dealt with by the state comptroller's Utility Management Review Board.

The WWTA is asking the court to place a restraining order on Carpenter would limit the number of times per month he could call the sewer authority.

The trial starts at 9:30 a.m. in Hamilton County Chancery Court.

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