(02/15/2014)
By DAVID HEDGES
Publisher
The Times Record

The Mt. Zion Public Service District has hired one of the state's largest law firms in an effort to regain control of the Mt. Zion water and sewer systems, in spite of a one-year agreement with the Town of Grantsville that does not expire until September.

The fight could prove to be an expensive one, especially in terms of legal costs.

The problems came to a head last fall after a court ruling left the PSD penniless.

Former Mt. Zion water and sewer system operators Tom Fluharty and Dick Ullum filed suit against the PSD in Calhoun Circuit Court for work they performed while under contract for more than two years.

The PSD never contested the suit and Judge David Nibert granted the men a default judgment of more than $71,000.

When the PSD still failed to respond, Nibert authorized seizure of the PSD's bank accounts, which contained a little over $46,000.

The PSD was then unable to pay employee wages or operating expenses, while still owing more than $25,000 under the judgment.

Since they were not being paid, PSD employees stopped reporting to work and the state health department issued a boil-water advisory because mandatory water testing was not being done.

PSD members turned to the town of Grantsville, which supplies the PSD's water, and in September an operations and maintenance agreement was approved to allow Grantsville to operate the Mt. Zion PSD water and sewer systems for a one-year period, until the PSD could get back on its feet.

The PSD hired Spencer attorney Erica Brannon Gunn to try and get some of the money back that was taken from its bank account.

Some of the money was returned to the PSD with an agreement the PSD would make payrnents on the judgment.

On the PSD's behalf, Grantsville paid Gunn $5,000, which the town says has not been repaid.

The PSD also owes more than $6,000, the town claims, for work by Grantsville attorney Loren Howley, who prepared the one-year agreement.

Now the PSD wants to take back the system, before the year is up, a move the town is opposing.

The PSD hired the Bowles-Rice law firm in an effort to regain control of the water and sewer systems from Grantsville.

In a petition filed with the W.Va. public Service Commission, the PSD listed several complaints regarding the way the town has been operating the system.

"The (PSD) believes it can provide better, more efficient and more orderly service to its customers directly using its personnel and equipment rather than through the operation and maintenance agreement (with the Town of Grantsville)," the petition filed by Bowles-Rice said.

Howley, in Grantsville's response to the PSD's notice of termination of the agreement, said it's not clear how the PSD could afford the law firm, since the town did not approve the expenditure and still has legal control over PSD business pursuant to the one-year agreement.

The PSD has also filed for a rate increase, without the town's approval, Howley's response said.

Howley also said it is not clear how the PSD can provide better service, since the PSD has not demonstrated that its employees can cornplete monthly meter readings and billing in an accurate and timely manner.

"This may be partly due to the fact that the PSD has only one meter reader, who has another full-time job and either cannot or does not timely read all meters, and one office employee, who is not always in the office during business hours and who insists on using an unreliable computer that crashes if it is unplugged," Howley said in her response.

Howley added that the amount the PSD owes Grantsville for her services would increase because of time spent responding to the petition.

Grantsville Mayor Curt Garretson said the town entered into the agreement to help the PSD get out of a bind.

He said the town would abide by whatever decision the W.Va. PSC would make regarding the petition.

"The town of Grantsville is not interested in needless efforts that will only cost Mt. Zion PSD more money," he said, "which is unfortunate, because in the end Mt. Zion PSD customers will be the ones to foot the bill."

Efforts to get comment from PSD member Roscoe "Cokey" Gainer were unsuccessful as Gainer did not return a message left at his home.


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