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December 07, 2012

City of Barre to Pay $70,000 to Settle Water Shut-Off Case

Brenda BrownThe city of Barre will pay a renter $10,000 — and pay her lawyers considerably more — for shutting off her water supply over her landlord's failure to pay the bill. The payments settle a federal class-action lawsuit brought by Brenda Brown and another Barre renter in 2011.

According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington this week, Brown will receive $10,000 within 30 days, pending approval of the settlement by the Barre City Council next Tuesday.

The city will pay Brown's lawyers at Vermont Legal Aid $59,862 in fees and costs. The Granite City will pay a second Barre renter, Earl Brooks, $500. He received an improper shut-off notice — but his taps were not actually turned off — because his landlord didn't pay the water bill.

Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon said he expects the council to approve the settlement when it meets next Tuesday. All but $500 of the payments will be covered by the city's insurer, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, Lauzon said.

In July, U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss struck down Barre's five-year-old water shut-off policy as unconstitutional because it doesn't give renters an opportunity to appeal a shut-off notice.

Brown sued Barre in 2011 after the city disconnected her water over her landlord's $722 past-due water bill. Brown was recovering from foot surgery when her taps went dry, and she spent two weeks in the dead of winter lugging bottled water up stairs — on crutches — to wash dishes, bathe and flush the toilet. Lauzon previously said the city's tough policy had dramatically improved the city's collection rate and ensured that all delinquent water customers were being treated the same.

On Friday, Lauzon said he wasn't aware of the settlement. Told of the details, the mayor commented, "Who made out well in that case? Score one for the small people."

Asked whether he thought the settlement was fair, Lauzon said, "From the point of view of the city, no. I mean, I don't know that we've conceded the city's position. And our position is consistent with most municipalities — that our relationship, in terms of water and sewer invoices, our relationship is with the property owner, not with the individual tenants." Lauzon said a water shut-off notice to anyone is "the absolute last thing" that any city wants, noting that Barre gives ratepayers 24 months to settle overdue tabs.

Brown's lawyer, Christopher Curtis of Vermont Legal Aid, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Barre amended its ordinances in October to comply with the judge's ruling. The city will have 30 days to pay the damages. The settlement ends the case.

File photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

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