Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Making Waves: Oklahoma Supreme Court Rules on Long Battle over Water Bills

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Making Waves: Oklahoma Supreme Court Rules on Long Battle over Water Bills

Article excerpt

An antitrust lawsuit in Wagoner County that could have profoundly changed the way state agencies and boards function was overturned May 27. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the state's Antitrust Reform Act doesn't apply to water rates charged by a rural district.

But the ruling, the latest skirmish in a four-year legal battle between Sinor's Long Bay Marina, RV park owners Paula and Larry Gibson and the Wagoner County Rural Water District No. 2 doesn't completely resolve the case. Despite overturning a portion of a Wagoner County District Court's verdict in favor of the marina and the Gibsons, the state's high court let the plaintiffs' other components stand and ordered the case returned to the district court.

An attorney for the water board said the lawsuit hasn't been completely resolved.

"In the sense that it hasn't been completely settled, I would agree with that," said Corey Stone, a partner at the Shawnee law firm of Pettis and Stone.

Stone said all parties will probably have to return again to district court for a status hearing.

"We still have to figure out how to clean up this mess," he said.

Court records show that the complaint bounced from the water board to district court and then the state's high court. In their filings, both the marina and the Gibson family said they were charged more for water service than other businesses by the Wagoner County Rural Water District No. 2. That practice, they said, discriminated against their recreational park business and violated the Oklahoma Antitrust Reform Act.

"We estimate around $49,000 in overcharges," said Bryan Nowlin, an attorney with Hall Estill, the law firm representing the Gibsons and the marina.

Nowlin said the district's normal structure set a monthly fee of $30 per meter for each member of the rural water district. That fee included about 1,000 gallons of water. If more water was used, he said, additional charges were levied.

However, both the Gibsons' RV park and the marina, which each had a single water meter, were charged differently, he said.

"At the RV park, they would count the number of sites, divide by four and say, 'That's your minimum charge,'" Nowlin said. "At the marina, they were trying to charge for each water hose and spigot."

Nowlin said the water charges escalated quickly.

"These businesses had bills for $1,000 per month with very little water used," he said. "That's pretty substantial for any business to deal with. I think successive boards thought this was a good way to make money."

Attorneys for the water district countered that the method for calculating the charges was a common practice in the northeastern part of the United States. The defendants also argued that the water rates of rural water districts were not subject to the antitrust act.

"Most communities have some ways to capture value from visitors," Stone said. …

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