Water Bill


Sunday, February 20, 2000

By Bob Dreitzler
Dispatch Staff Reporter

A lawsuit filed by a woman whose water was shut off for five days because she hadn’t paid the bill of a previous tenant promted the Lawrence County city of Ironton to change its water-department policies.

The city agreed to pay Janet Ritchie $1,000 plus attorney fees of $4,150, and change its water shut-off policies.

In exchange, Ritchie has agreed to drop the $1.1 million class-action lawsuit she filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

Ironton becomes the second Lawrence County city in two years to change its water-billing policies as the result of a tenant taking legal action over water service.

In 1998, water officials in Coal Grove changed a policy so that tenants would not be held responsible for property owners’ unpaid water bills.  The change came after a federal judge upheld a woman’s lawsuit challenging the old policy.

Ritchie filed suit in August after Ironton officials told her that her water would be shut off for the second time in less than a month if she did not pay an overdue bill of $364 accumulated by the landlord or previous tenants.

According to her lawsuit, Ritchie received assurance from her landlord when she leased her apartment that the landlord would pay the bill.

After she moved in, however, the city shut her water off without notice, and it took her five days to get service re-established.

A few weeks later, she found a notice posted on her door saying that her water would be turned off again unless she paid the old bill or established a new account.

A clerk at the water department then told her she could not open a new account in her own name.

Ritchie contacted Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, which referred her to Steve C. Shane, a Cincinnati-area lawyer who has handled similar problems in other southern Ohio communities.

Shane has said the billing practice is unconstitutional and that he suspects it is widespread among smaller water departments that think they can’t afford to get stuck with unpaid bills.

In addition to Ironton and Coal Grove, Shane secured a similar settlement in 1997 against the city of Portsmouth in Scioto County.

Ironton City Attorney W. Mack Anderson said the city’s new policy allows tenants to have water accounts in their own name instead of the landlord’s name.

Ritchie said she was paying for her water along with her rent, Anderson said, but the landlord was not paying the bill.

Notices that the account was in arrears were going to the landlord instead of Ritchie.

The consent decree negotiated to resolve Ritchie’s case prohibits the city from denying water services to anyone because of a water bill owed by someone else.

It requires that anyone whose water is to be shut off for nonpayment receive at least 14 days’ notice and establishes an appeal procedure in which a customer can ask for a hearing.

It also prohibits shutting off the water on the day before a holiday or a weekend, “or any other day on which all services necessary to restore service are not available.”

The new policy allows low-income customers to make installment payments on the deposit required to start water service.

A visual inspection must be made of any property where a shut-off has been requested to prevent employees from mistakenly shutting off the water at the wrong house.

The agreement calls for Shane or someone he designates to conduct a training session to familiarize all water-department employees with the changes.

Anderson said the settlement solves a problem without creating new problems or costs for the city.

Ironton did not admit doing anything wrong but agreed to the settlement because the payment is less than it would have cost the city to fight the suit in court, Anderson said.

Ritchie could not be reached for comment.

A neighbor said she has moved from the apartment where she was living when her water service was shut off.

Ask Steve.