locally owned since 1854

Lower Swatara is suing Highspire, says borough overcharged township to treat its wastewater

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 7/18/18

Lower Swatara Township and its municipal authority have sued Highspire borough and the borough authority, alleging that Highspire has been overcharging the township to treat its wastewater.

While …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Lower Swatara is suing Highspire, says borough overcharged township to treat its wastewater

Posted

Lower Swatara Township and its municipal authority have sued Highspire borough and the borough authority, alleging that Highspire has been overcharging the township to treat its wastewater.

While Lower Swatara has a sewer system, the township does not have a wastewater treatment plant. According to the complaint, a majority of Lower Swatara’s discharge is treated at the Highspire Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“The borough, however, has not met its obligations under the agreement and has charged the township excessive fees for the township’s discharge into the [wastewater treatment plant],” the complaint read.

The complaint was filed in Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas on June 22 and asks for more than $500,000.

In the complaint, the township alleges that Highspire has breached the agreement between the bodies, particularly by assigning larger portions of salary and other expenses than they believe to be appropriate to the wastewater treatment plant fund; overestimated costs and either failed or delayed returning Lower Swatara’s overpayments; and that Highspire has provided Lower Swatara with “incomplete and inadequate financial statements and financial information for the operation of the [waterwater treatment plant] for many years.”

Township leaders are asking a judge to rule that the agreement between Lower Swatara and Highspire can be terminated once the township gives its termination notice to the borough.

“For decades, Highspire and Lower Swatara have successfully worked together to treat the majority of the wastewater generated in Lower Swatara,” Highspire borough solicitor Brian Carter said. “It is unfortunate Lower Swatara felt it necessary to spend taxpayer money pursuing litigation relating to the wastewater treatment services Highspire provides to Lower Swatara residents.”

Carter said that Highspire has received a copy of the lawsuit.

“We are currently reviewing the allegations made by Lower Swatara and will file an appropriate response with the court. We fully expect that at the conclusion of the litigation that the services and actions of Highspire will be found appropriate and in line with the contract we have with Lower Swatara.”

The township is being represented by Michael McAuliffe Miller of Eckert Seamans. According to meeting minutes, the board unanimously voted to hire Miller as the township’s “labor attorney” for 2014 during the March 5, 2014, meeting. In an email, Miller said that the firm, who is being paid a rate of $250 an hour, has been retained since.

History of agreement

The borough’s website states that the treatment plant, which is located on Industrial Road, was built in 1960 and expanded in both 1987 and 2011. It is equipped to treat an average of 2 million gallons of wastewater a day. In addition to part of Lower Swatara, the plant serves all of Highspire.

In 1986, the borough and township entered into a transportation and treatment agreement which would be in effect “until terminated,” according to the complaint.

In the complaint, Miller wrote that “the agreement generally sets the terms and conditions of the borough’s agreement to transport, treat and dispose of sanitary and industrial waste.”

Miller argues that under the agreement, the borough has several obligations, including to maintain the sewer facilities in good condition and give the township access to related records. Miller wrote that Highspire also was obligated to keep accounting records that provide the basis of charges, deliver an annual financial statement to Lower Swatara, and fund expenses from the appropriate accounts. If the budget isn’t received after being presented, the borough should meet with the township to come to an agreement.

Lower Swatara is responsible to pay 64 percent of treatment plant-related expenses. The township argues that this does not include collection and conveyance sewer costs.

Allegations

The township alleges that Highspire has been funding expenses, including collection and conveyance sewer costs, through the wastewater treatment plant fund. Higher percentages of some expenses — such as some salaries, office supplies and equipment, materials and supplies, uniforms and safety, auditing and accounting services, engineering, communications, vehicle operation, printing and postage, insurance, and maintenance and repairs — have been assigned to the fund than the township believes to be appropriate, according to the complaint.

The township contends other expenditures — such as pension contribution and some salaries — should not be allocated to the wastewater treatment plant fund. The township also argues that Highspire refuses to conduct financial analyses before replacing laboratory equipment or provide copies of analyses to “justify in-house lab services,” according to the complaint.

“The borough has inappropriately assigned percentages of expense to the WWTP and has refused requests to properly assign percentages to the WWTP based upon actual services provided,” Miller wrote in the complaint.

Miller alleges that Highspire has kept extra fees from the township for annual flow “based on the borough’s overestimation of fees owed.” He wrote the excessive fees are returned in an “unreasonably delayed fashion,” likening it to an interest-free loan to the borough.

No resolution

According to the complaint, Lower Swatara has tried to resolve the issues with Highspire. In March 2017, Lower Swatara requested to examine the facilities and records from 2013 to the present.

Miller alleges that Highspire did not respond to Lower Swatara’s request in writing, but did grant access to records and facilities after the township called the borough.

After the township received the 2018 Sewer Department Operations and Maintenance Budget in November 2017, Lower Swatara asked for clarification on budget allocations “advising the borough that it assigned a higher percentage of expenses than appropriate to the [wastewater treatment plant] for which the township provides a majority of the financial support,” the complaint reads.

Lower Swatara also allegedly asked for justification for “substantial” increases in salary, group insurance, pension contribution, laboratory costs and equipment costs.

Lower Swatara and Highspire officials reportedly met in December, and after, Lower Swatara leaders sent a letter requesting revisions, reimbursement and efforts for the next year.

Miller alleges that Highspire officials responded “largely refusing to correct or acknowledge the township’s concerns.”

Lower Swatara is also asking for financial records of the expenses and cost allocations of the WWTP from January 2013 to the present.