Village terminates water service for failure to pay street light service fees
In 2012, the Village of Rayland1 passed an ordinance establishing a four-dollar monthly fee for street light service. The village collected this fee, along with water, sewer and garbage fees, on a unified bill. Residents Gordon and Andrea Jenkins objected to the street light utility fee. They would regularly deduct four dollars from their monthly unified bill, as well as any past due balance and late fees associated with the four-dollar fee. The Jenkinses informed the village of their intention never to pay the street light fee in a letter dated February 2013.
By June 2013, the Jenkinses had a delinquent balance of $50.00. The village sent a delinquency notice informing them that their water service would be shut off on July 1 if the balance was not paid in full. The village sent a second delinquency notice in July 2013, noting an unpaid balance of $64.00 and a shut-off date of July 29, 2013. With payment still owed, the village shut off the water service to the Jenkinses’ property.
The village proceeded to file suit against the Jenkinses in small claims court, seeking $229.00 in past due fees and seeking an order that the Jenkinses pay the street light fee in the future. The Jenkinses counterclaimed, alleging, among other things, that it was unlawful for the village to shut off water service for nonpayment of the street light fee. The village moved for summary judgment on its claims and on the Jenkinses’ counterclaims, arguing that it was proper to disconnect the water and that it was immune from the Jenkinses’ counterclaims. The trial court denied the village’s motion without analysis, and the village appealed that denial.
On appeal, the court of appeals examined the village’s immunity to the Jenkinses’ wrongful termination claim. It found that, because operating a municipal water supply is a proprietary function, the village could only be liable if its employees were negligent in shutting off the Jenkinses’ water. The court observed that it is well-established Ohio law that a municipality may terminate water service for the nonpayment of fees for a “closely-related service.” Sewer and garbage collection had previously been held to be “closely-related services.”
The court determined that the street light fee in question was also a “closely related service.” First, the court observed that it would be unreasonable for the village to be forced to pursue the non-payment of the street light fee bill through the court system ad infinitum. Second, the court observed that, unlike the individualized benefit received from water service, the Jenkinses received a general benefit from all the street lights in the village. Because the street light service is not individually-severable, the termination of water service, which is individually-severable, was a reasonable enforcement mechanism. Finally, the court observed the “important benefit” the street lights provided to the citizens of the village. For all of those reasons, it reversed the trial court’s decision and determined that it was not unreasonable for the village to terminate the Jenkinses’ water service.
1 Vill. of Rayland v. Jenkins, 7th Dist. Jefferson No. 17 JE 0004, 2018-Ohio-3487.