ELDON, Mo. - A lawsuit brought against the city by a group of landlords in response to water and sewer rate increases and restructuring in 2010 is set to go to the Miller County Circuit Court in May.
The original lawsuit, filed in April 2010 and dismissed by the court in November of that year, has not been completely set aside, as previously reported. As allowed by the court, the plaintiffs filed an amended petition reducing the number of counts addressed within 30 days that remains on the books and is set for trial May 1-2.
Seventeen plaintiffs filed the original petition - although six have since dismissed themselves voluntarily - claiming the city's 2010 restructuring of its water-billing system burdens landlords inordinately and unfairly. At issue is a 2010 ordinance that raised monthly user rates and began charging owners of multi-unit complexes like apartment buildings, trailer parks and strip malls that are served by one meter a minimum fee per unit, where previously they had paid only for usage of the one meter.
Plaintiff Joan Jungmeyer, who with her husband, Glen, owns several Eldon rental properties including a four-unit strip mall, claims her water and sewer bill for the property nearly tripled after the ordinance was passed. She was charged $41.79 for using 3,100 gallons of water during a one-month period in 2010, and about a year later was charged $167.57 for using 2,700 gallons - 400 gallons less - during a one-month period in 2011. She attributes this to the city's adding three "virtual meters" to the property, which receives water service through only one actual meter.
"You're paying for the metered water and the sewerage, and then they multiply that by the number of units in it," Jungmeyer said.
A 2008 ordinance also enacted a minimum monthly charge for usage of 0 to 1,000 gallons of water, even for meters turned off at vacant properties. That charge is currently $41.93.
"It almost verges on the hinge of profiteering by the city," Jungmeyer said. "A vacant meter bill? You're paying for 1,000 gallons of water with a meter that's turned off."
The issue resurfaced last month when Eldon passed new water and sewer ordinances making both tenants and landlords responsible for unpaid bills and aligning the city's municipal code with Missouri state statute. This is a way to collect thousands of dollars in outstanding charges that have accrued since passing the 2008 and 2010 ordinances so the money can be put toward maintaining the city's water system. The new ordinances make the landlord or homeowner responsible for up to and no more than 90 days of unpaid bills if the city is unable to collect from the tenant.
"The only reason it's related is because some of those vacant houses out there have been getting a bill every month," explained City Clerk Fran Suttmoller. "These new ordinances are now trying to collect on it."
Jungmeyer and the other plaintiffs' amended lawsuit petition seeks to have the city remove what they call the "vacant meter ordinance" and "virtual meter ordinance."
The city of Eldon, in its answer to the plaintiffs' amended petition, claims the rates are a reasonable means to fund its water system and fair to all residents including landlords, citing a rate study conducted before enacting the ordinances.
"The rate study detailed the city had been operating its water and sewer system at a loss and that additional funds will be necessary to continue its operations and provide necessary future improvements," according to the city's filed reply. "The rates as enacted apply equally to each class and are therefore not discriminatory."
With more than five months until the lawsuit is scheduled for trial, the water and sewer rate structure that began evolving five years ago stands as it is for landlords and other Eldon residents.
"This is 2013, and our water bills proceed on," Jungmeyer said. "It has ruined some people."