Sewer district ordered to pay $4.8 million in attorneys’ fees from stormwater lawsuit

A circuit court judge ruled last week that law firm Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale of St. Louis will be awarded $4.8 million in attorneys’ fees and expenses in the lawsuit against the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District over its stormwater user charge.

Lincoln County Circuit Judge Dan Dildine granted the firm’s request to double its legal fees after the judge last year sided with its clients and declared the stormwater charge, based on impervious area, was invalid.

Chesterfield resident William Zweig and others sued MSD in 2008 over the validity of the charge. The suit later became class-action litigation.

Dildine ruled last July the impervious charge violated state law because MSD voters did not approve it. The judge said in November MSD did not have to refund roughly $90 million collected over two and a half years with the charge.

The district in December appealed Dildine’s decision to invalidate the charge.

In a statement, MSD called Dildine’s ruling on attorney’s fees “disappointing.”

“The request by Greensfelder to double their fees, which MSD believes were already excessive, underscores that this case has been more about money than it has been about the public good,” the statement said. “The end result will be that the public continues to suffer from inequitable and insufficient stormwater services, while the lawyers reap an unprecedented multi-million dollar windfall …

“While MSD respects the judge’s orders in this case, MSD fundamentally disagrees with the unprecedented doubling of fees.  The awarding of this windfall only serves to emphasize the many reasons for appealing the July ruling.”

In response to Dildine’s ruling last July, the MSD Board of Trustees suspended the stormwater charge — at the time 14 cents per 100 square feet of area that does not hold water — and reinstated a previous system of flat charges and property taxes to pay for stormwater service.

The district expects a $20 million revenue shortfall by switching to the previous system. Trustees in October cut $15.5 million in stormwater services and projects from the fiscal 2011 budget. The district now can only provide customers inside of Interstate 270 with basic stormwater services, while customers outside of I-270 will receive virtually no stormwater service, officials have said. MSD expects funding for stormwater projects to run out in June 2012.

The Zweig case does not affect MSD’s ability to provide wastewater collection and treatment because those services are funded with separate user charges, the district has said.