By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009
A Loudoun County judge denied a motion Tuesday to hold Leesburg in contempt for violating his ruling ordering the town to set new utility rates.
The motion was filed by several out-of-town residents who had sued Leesburg in 2006 for imposing a 100 percent surcharge on their water and sewer bills.
Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne ruled in March that the surcharge was unreasonably high and unlawful under the state code. He ordered the town to set new rates by Sept. 1.
The town hired an outside consultant to conduct a rate study to create fees in compliance with Horne's order calling for a lower surcharge. Out-of-town customers will have a one-time 26 percent reduction in their water rates and a 20 percent reduction in their sewer rates this year.
The out-of-town residents took Leesburg back to court, filing a motion saying that the new rate structure violates Horne's ruling.
Horne had ruled that to be considered reasonable, the water rate surcharge for out-of-town customers would need to be reduced by 45.51 percent, and the sewer rate surcharge by 36.53 percent, based on the old rates. Under the new rates, out-of-town residents will have water and sewer surcharges of 41 and 52 percent, respectively.
Mike Quinan, the plaintiffs' attorney, said that under the new rate structure, out-of-town residents would not see any relief equal to the reductions Horne applied to the old rates in his March ruling.
Horne, who also presided over Tuesday's hearing, disagreed. He also denied the plaintiff's motion for an emergency hearing on new rates.
"He decided that he would not make a determination as to whether the new rates were reasonable based on the motion for contempt," Quinan said.
Town Attorney Jeanette Irby said Leesburg was not in contempt, because the Town Council followed Horne's method when it enacted the new rates.
She said the council's rates are different from Horne's because his ruling was based on 2006 fees, and the council's fees are based on current market conditions and the increased operating costs of the town's water system.
The council "set the rates based on the present situation, not what it was like in 2006," Irby said.
In addition, Horne denied the plaintiff's motion to hold Leesburg in contempt for billing out-of-town customers for the quarterly bill covering May, June and July.
In his final order from the 2006 lawsuit, Horne had imposed an injunction on the town from enforcing water and sewer rates in excess of what he ruled was reasonable. However, he granted the town a delay in enforcing the order until it set new rates Sept. 1.
Quinan said the last quarterly water and sewer bills were issued in August and were not due until Sept. 8, seven days after the town's new rates went into effect.
"By our reading of the final order, the town was violating the injunction by continuing to collect the old rates" after Sept. 1, Quinan said.
The town is appealing the judge's ruling from the 2006 lawsuit.
Quinan declined to say what legal action, if any, his plaintiffs might pursue next.
"We're looking into our options," he said.