It comes from everywhere in Shreveport — sewage from commercial water customers. The $64 question is if the city is unlawfully billing for sewage? And, if so, how much has been overcharged and where is the money?
That’s the crux of the latest lawsuit filed against the City of Shreveport over the city’s water billing fiasco.
Where, and when, this bureaucratic nightmare will end is anyone’s guess. It is becoming a bigger and bigger burr under the saddle of Mayor Ollie Tyler while she seeks re-election.
The prior litigation involves somewhat complicated accounting and billing interpretation. In contrast, the lawsuit filed by The Haven Property Owners Association and Briarwood Apartments makes for “easy” reading, as far as lawsuits go. The plaintiffs say that the city improperly collected a state sales tax from commercial sewage customers and refused to refund the money.
The tax involves only commercial, not residential, accounts. State law allows the city to collect a sales tax on the amount of water used by business customers. But it does not set any tax on sewer services.
The lawsuit alleges that additional taxes were mislabeled as water customer, sewer quantity or sewer customer charges (collectively, “sewer taxes”). The pleadings state that these charges are illegal. And, it further alleges, these sums were retained by the city rather than remitted to the state.
The Haven is a high-end subdivision near LSU-Shreveport and behind the levy on East Kings Highway. It has approximately 500 homes. Residents pay a water and sewage fee in their monthly homeowners’ association dues. Briarwood is a 100-unit apartment complex on Golf Links Boulevard near Greenwood Road.
A significant issue in this litigation is the claim that Barbara Featherston, director of Shreveport’s Water and Sewage Department, became aware in September 2015 that the sales tax applied only to water use by commercial customers. In late 2017 she acknowledged by email that no sales tax should be charged on sewer use, according to the lawsuit. Nonetheless, sewer taxes were collected from July 2015 until January of this year.
The depositions of Chief Administration Officer Brian Crawford and Tyler taken in February 2017 seemingly add insult to injury. Both Crawford and Tyler acknowledged that the city’s water billing system was not operating correctly. And that an audit was needed.
Crawford stated that a request for proposal (RFP) for a water billing audit was sent out the day before his deposition. Tyler stated that the city had many priorities other than an audit. The lawsuit states that the RFP was retracted and redrafted — but never sent out.
All of the water billing litigation has been filed by the Harper Law Firm. Jerry Harper wrote the mayor in May, attaching water bills and explaining the legislative history. He even offered to help the city correct the billing problems — at no charge. Harper wanted the city to shoot straight with the public and reimburse the overbilling.
The only response from the city was a letter from City Attorney William Bradford on May 23. “We are reviewing the history of billing and collection of taxes, and when the review is concluded, we will determine if customers were charged a tax on non-applicable items," Bradford wrote, continuing: "In the event of such charges and collections, the City will take the appropriate action.”
The city did nothing after sending this letter. Harper filed his suit on Aug. 6.
How many business customers are being illegally charged for their sewer use is not known. The lawsuit alleges that the amount collected is between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. Shreveport has thousands of commercial water and sewer customers. The Haven estimates the city owes it a refund of $25,000 to $35,000.
Not surprisingly, the Tyler administration has been tight-lipped on all the water billing litigation. When questioned at a recent mayoral candidate forum, Tyler said that “if something has been done wrong, we will do the audit when I’m re-elected.”
What it will take to convince Tyler that something is wrong is unknown?
Clearly, she does not want the water billing to become as big an issue as the “crime problem.” There is a big difference between the two controversies. Tyler has repeatedly said that Shreveport police cannot be in every household, which is true when she addresses crimes of passion. However, she can order an audit anytime.
Julie Lafargue, the city’s attorney in all the water-billing litigation, has said that the city is working to correct any billing errors, and will refund any over-payments to customers. Her comments raise several questions.
First, is this an admission of overbilling? Second, what would be the source of funds for any refunds? And lastly, is Tyler leaving a significant problem for her successor if not re-elected (she is one of eight candidates)? Tyler has complained repeatedly about administrative challenges she inherited from former Mayor Cedric Glover.
As expected, the city is attempting to delay any action on the recent litigation. There is plenty of truth in the old courthouse saying that “justice delayed is justice denied." When Shreveport citizens will get answers to all the water billing controversies is an open question. For sure, it will not be until after the next mayor is elected in December.
(This articles will be/was published in The Shreveport Times on Sunday, September 2, 2018)