The Columbus Dispatch


Tuesday, November 3, 1998

By Bob Dreitzler
Dispatch Staff Reporter

A tenant who sued a southern Ohio village when it required her to pay the property owner’s bill before turning on the water has won a cash settlement and forced Coal Grove to change its water service policy.

Sally Mowery, 34, and her daughter Amanda, 14, who won the out-of-court settlement with the Ohio River village 110 miles south of Columbus, filed suit in federal court in July.

Federal Judge Susan Dlott last week approved an agreement in which the village of 2,300 residents will pay $2,590 to Mowery and $2,410 in fees and expenses for Cincinnati attorney Steven C. Shane, who filed the suit.

Also part of the settlement is a resolution passes Aug. 6 by the Coal Grove Village Council that the village water department will not hold new tenants responsible for unpaid bills incurred by prior tenants or property owners.

Mowery’s problems began June 30 when she rented a house in Coal Grove and asked the village to turn on the water.

She said village employees told her that she could not have water service until a $260 water bill incurred by the property owner was paid.

Mowery said she and her daughter could not live in the house without water because both have breathing problems that they sometimes treat by inhaling vapor from hot water.

Mowery contacted Southeaster Ohio Legal Services, which sent the village a letter asking that it provide water service immediately.

The village did not reply, and Mowery moved in temporarily with her mother in nearby South Point, while Amanda stayed with her father in Ironton.

The legal services agency referred Mowery to Shane, who had previous experience in dealing with local government that required new water customers to pay debts left by previous tenants.

“My perception is that some small communities don’t do a very good job of complying with due process and other constitutional protections that people are entitled to,” Shane said by phone yesterday. “They sometimes run roughshod over people’s rights and don’t weigh the consequences of their actions. It’s basically an abuse of power.”

The payment to Shane includes $260 that he provided to get Mowery’s water turned on and $150 for court fees that he paid.

Shane said it is not unusual in such cases for an attorney to advance the cost of a court filing fee.

He said he put up the money to pay the previous occupant’s water bill because “if I hadn’t done that, she would not have gotten water.”

Mayor Glenn Markins said shortly before the Village Council passed its resolution in August that   the village does not normally ask one tenant to pay a bill left by another, and that the Mowery  case grew out of a misunderstanding.

In her case the unpaid bill was left by the property owner and not another tenant, he said.

In the future, he said, the village will provide water first and deal with questions about unpaid bills later.

Neither Markins nor Mowery could be reached yesterday for additional comment.

Ask Steve.