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Village board elects to not set hearing date for changes to water, sewer installation fees

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MASSENA - A public hearing to discuss a change in the fee structure for water and sewer line repair work has been delayed for at least one month.

Trustee Francis Carvel told his fellow board members he had sought a recommendation from the New York Conference of Mayors and had been told that the village’s current flat fee structure is the most effective policy.

But other village officials, including Trustee Timothy J. Ahlfeld and Mayor James F. Hidy, reminded Mr. Carvel that suggestion flew in the face of the recommendation of the village’s attorney as well as a recent ruling on the issue in state Supreme Court.

In an undated memo addressed to the village board’s Water and Sewer Committee members, Patricia K. Wilson and Mr. Ahlfeld, Village Attorney Matthew McArdle advised them the village’s current policy of billing a flat rate for the installation of water laterals and sewer lines was not legal.

“The comptroller’s opinion specifically states: ‘a village is not authorized to make a flat charge for tapping into or connecting with village sewers,” he wrote, noting the issue came to light following a court case connected to the installation of a sewer line on the East Orvis Street property of R. Shawn Gray.

Mr. Gray had filed a lawsuit against the village after he was billed more than $5,000 for work that would now cost village residents either $500, $750 or $1,000 based on the village’s current fee structure.

“In his decision Judge Demarest pointed out that, ‘It would appear that charging a flat charge rather than all or some percentage of actual costs is illegal,’” he wrote.

Trustee Francis J. Carvel said he wasn’t convinced the village should make another changes to its billing policy.

“I called NYCOM a couple weeks,” he said, adding he walked away from that conversation thinking the best way to charge for repairs is the way the village is doing it now.

“Just because a judge makes a decision doesn’t mean he’s right,” Mr. Carvel said, noting it’s not unusual for one judge to overturn a ruling made by another judge only to maybe even see the ruling get overturned again.

Mr. Ahlfeld countered the village board is paying someone for legal advice, and he would like to see that recommendation followed.

“Matt McArdle came back with an opinion from Judge Demarest, who said what we’re doing is illegal,” Mr. Ahlfeld said. When you have a judge and an attorney, who went through more years of law school than I did, tell you that what you’re doing is illegal, you listen to them.”

Mr. Ahlfeld said he agreed with Mr. Carvel that the current policy is a fair one, but if it’s illegal it has to be changed, he said.

“If we don’t have to change it, I don’t want to,” he said, suggesting Mr. Carvel send a copy of the court’s ruling to NYCOM to get their feedback.

Mr. Carvel said reverting back to a policy where the resident is expected to pay a percentage of the actual cost versus a flat rate fee can lead to inconsistency in billing.

“Patricia is better looking than I am, so she’ll get a lower bill than I would,” he said. “That’s what happens when you bring the human element into this.”

When asked how often his crews are performing these services, Mr. Fayad said it was only five or six times per year.

Given that the work is not a regular occurrence, Mr. Ahlfeld suggested delaying a public hearing on another proposed billing procedure change to the September meeting to give village officials time to get a second opinion on the court ruling from NYCOM..

Further discussion on the proposed change is expected at the August meeting.

The current proposal is switch from the current flat rate billing structure to one that charges residents 50 percent of the village’s costs.

The issue had been raised prior to the board discussion by former Village Trustee Joseph A. Macaulay. He noted he and Mr. Carvel had designed the current law four years ago after concerns were raised over bills in the $5,000 range for sewer repair work on properties owned by Mr. Gray and Alex Krywanczyk.

Mr. Macaulay said he felt it was wrong for the village to be billing residents for work that he feels they are paying for with their water and sewer rates.

“They have already been paying for years and years for repairs to that system,” he said, noting he supported having village crews do the work”. I like our system. Our guys should be doing the work, so you don’t have to worry about it getting screwed up.”

Mr. Macaulay then requested a copy of the law that suggests the current policy is illegal being cited by the village attorney.

“I will get that for you. It’s right in there,” Mr. Hidy said.

Mr. Carvel said if the village is forced to revise its billing policy he would support allowing village residents to hire private contractors to do the repair work at a potentially lower cost.

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