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August 05, 2010

Dozens of Barre Apartments Lost Water For Owners' Unpaid Bills

LM-brenda Remember Brenda Brown?

She's the Barre renter whose water was shut off because her landlord failed to pay the water bill for months on end. She's also the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that seeks to overturn Barre's hardball water shutoff policy, which derives its authority from a state law that few Vermont towns utilize.

At the time we reported on Brown's predicament and lawsuit, on May 26, Barre Mayor Tom Lauzon didn't know how many  households the city had shut off for unpaid water bills.

Now we know.

Court documents filed in Brown's lawsuit show that Barre has disconnected 13 households over the last six years. Whether that's a little or a lot depends on who you ask.

Photo credit: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

The city's lawyers, unsurprisingly, argue that's a drop in the bucket — averaging out to just 2.1 disconnections per year — and not nearly enough to warrant a class action lawsuit, which Brown is seeking. In the court circuit that includes Vermont, 40 class members are required for such a case.

To Brown's attorneys, Vermont Legal Aid's Christopher Curtis and Karen Richards, the number is high —  and far more significant than Barre would have us believe. Counting affected households rather than individual apartment units, as Barre did, is misleading, Curtis argues.

The city's own list shows that 25 distinct rental units have had water shut off since 2004. Assuming two or more people per apartment, that number quickly doubles or even triples — and is more than sufficient to quality as a "class" of people harmed by Barre's rules, Curtis argues.

Since 2004, Barre has issued 179 water shut-off warnings. The list of properties actually disconnected, along with the dates they were cut off, the listed property owners and the number of dwelling units in each are as follows:

11-3-04    34 Willey St.    Jeremy Orr    2 units

9-4-08    114 River St.    Michelle Thurston    2 units

11-4-08    160 S. Main St.    Barrett & Linda Gregoire    2 units

11-4-08    168 S. Main St.    Barrett & Linda Gregoire    2 units

11-5-08    39 Summer St.    Federal National    4 units

11-5-08    52 W. Patterson    Barrett & Linda Gregoire    3 units

9-23-09    425 N. Main St.    Lowell Spillane    2 units

9-24-09    6 Webster St.    Eric & Antje Irish    2 units

9-24-09    6 Webster St.    Eric & Antje Irish    2 units

2-3-10    74 Summer St.    Jeffrey & Marybeth Tevis    4 units

2-3-10    74 Summer St.    Jeffrey & Marybeth Tevis    4 units

2-10-10    425 N. Main St.    Lowell Spillane    2 units

3-11-10    32 Jefferson St.    Gregory Hood    2 units

When Brown learned in February that she'd lose water at her four-unit apartment building on Summer Street, she tried to appeal to City Hall but was told she had no grounds to appeal or settle the tab without assuming her landlord's past-due amount. The reason was that she wasn't the listed ratepayer on the water account; her landlord is. Brown went without water for two weeks in the dead of winter, just as she was recovering from foot surgery, and used up grocery money and food stamps on bottled water to flush the toilet, bathe and wash dishes.

Barre argues that Brown and renters like her should take their landlords to court when they don't pay water bills. That's the legal remedy available to tenants. Brown's lawyers that's impractical, especially for low-income renters without the money or expertise needed to hire a lawyer and file suit.

Both sides will be in U.S. District Court in Burlington on Thursday, Aug. 5, for a hearing to decide whether enough Barre renters have been cut off to warrant a class-action lawsuit.

good story!

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