In some ways, Rick Carpenter got his wish. He can now pay two years' worth of sewer bills in cash. There will be no transaction fee per se -- but there will be one due for Hamilton County Chancery Court.
On Friday, Chancellor Jeffery Atherton ruled in favor of the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority, which sued Carpenter and his wife, Anna Grace Carpenter, in March over hundreds of dollars in unpaid sewer bills.
The Carptenters have tried to pay the bills in cash, but WWTA doesn't accept cash payments. And the couple refused to pay $1 to $3 transaction fees to third-party retailers who contract to collect sewer bills.
The WWTA also asked the court to prevent Rick Carpenter from making calls to WWTA staff, saying 35 phone messages he had left for various employees, including Executive Director Cleveland Grimes, were harassing and racially charged.
Atherton said Friday the Carpenters have to pay up -- including court costs. He also ruled that Rick Carpenter cannot call WWTA at all for 30 days. For 120 days after that, Carpenter can only call for billing inquiries.
But despite the ruling, Rick Carpenter called Friday's court date a success. Atherton said he had to pay $516 to settle the bill, but the judge waived about $47 in late fees WWTA had levied.
"If we don't have to pay the late fees, we see that as a win, because that's saying they weren't valid," Carpenter said after the trial. "We never wanted to get out of paying. We just wanted to pay in cash without having to buy any other services."
Carpenter was also pleased to hear that Atherton did not agree with WWTA's policy of not accepting cash payments directly. But Atherton said he didn't have the power to change it.
"Do I like the no walk-in, no-direct-cash payment policy? No. .... Should there be a mechanism to accept cash payments directly? Perhaps. But I don't have the authority to set the policy of the WWTA," Atherton said.
Carpenter said he'll pay the court within the 30-day time frame. But the couple plans to appeal the case. So far, the Carpenters, who are not lawyers, have represented themselves because they haven't found an attorney willing to help.
"Whenever we ask somebody to come on board, they say the cost of getting this done will not be worth the time and trouble," Rick Carpenter said.
Meantime, the couple has relied on Legal Aid of East Tennessee for guidance.
WWTA attorney Chris Clem said after the ruling the Carpenters' main complaint about the billing policy was legitimate. But there were other administrative avenues they could have taken outside of court. Also, he said the couple might have made more headway with the WWTA board "had they been nice about it."
Clem was certain an arrangement could be made for the Carpenters to pay old bills in cash, but he noted future bills would still be due normally, with fees.
If the case is appealed, it will go before the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon @timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.
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