WILMINGTON — The water bill war is headed to court, and the City of Wilmington has a strong ally on its side — the Ohio attorney general.
The ongoing battle against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over what city officials call unfair and exorbitant invoices from the Corps related to Wilmington’s primary drinking water supply at Caesar Creek Lake has taken a new turn.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Friday in federal court to recoup improper charges billed to the state for the upkeep of Caesar Creek Lake.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, contends that the Corps of Engineers has jacked up costs without providing complete itemized receipts to support the price increases. Receipts that have been provided list questionable charges, according to a news release from the AG’s office on Friday.
“The Army Corps of Engineers has kept tight-lipped when pressed about these excessive and unreasonable charges,” Yost said. “Some of the receipts we have seen are unbelievable – like charges for attending a boat show. We want our money back.”
Under an agreement reached in 1970, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) pays the Corps of Engineers for maintaining and operating the reservoir, a water source for the City of Wilmington. ODNR bills the city for reimbursement.
According to the contract, the maintenance and operational charges are supposed to be limited to those involving flood control and water supply. However, some available receipts list charges for unrelated purposes, such as travel to a Cincinnati boat show, solar panel repairs, a washer and dryer and a set of American flags.
The state’s lawsuit seeks damages to compensate for the overcharges and a judgement specifying what constitutes maintenance and operation costs under the contract. Attorneys from Yost’s Environmental Enforcement Section are representing ODNR in the case.
City’s ongoing battle, and new bill
The administration of Wilmington Mayor John Stanforth welcomes the state in the long-running fight against excessive charges by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers related to Caesar Creek Lake, the city stated in a news release Monday.
On the same day Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a lawsuit to recoup years of improper charges by the Army Corps, the city received the largest annual bill ever for Corps activities at the man-made lake.
The bill of $306,522.64 received by the city Friday for operations and maintenance at the lake was more than $100,000 higher than the one received a year ago.
“It’s apparent that the Army Corps is doubling down on its tactics to overcharge the city for purported operations and maintenance activities,” said Mayor Stanforth. “Now that the DeWine administration and Mr. Yost have taken on our fight by bringing the Corps to court, we are more optimistic than ever that this unfair situation can get rectified.
“The state’s lawsuit recites almost verbatim the complaints the city has had over the Army Corps’ tactics,” Stanforth added.
Through a series of contracts involving the Army Corps, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the City of Wilmington, the city uses Caesar Creek Lake as a source for its Water Treatment Plant.
The contracts call for Wilmington to pay 12.7 percent of operations and maintenance costs related to flood control and water supply at the lake. The Army Corps presents the bills to ODNR, which passes them onto the city.
Wilmington began using water from Caesar Creek Lake in 1993. For about the first 20 years, the annual operations and maintenance charges averaged about $129,000, according to city records. But since 2015, the average bill has increased to about $223,000.
“And now the bill has jumped to more than $300,000. The water department and its customers — the residents of Wilmington — cannot afford these skyrocketing costs,” said Public Works Director Rick Schaffer.
With the latest bill, the Army Corps resorted to its prior practice of providing absolutely no information to explain the basis for the billings.
Until 2017, the operations and maintenance bills included no supporting information, the city stated. At the urging of Mayor Stanforth, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers prodded the Army Corps to provide explanation of the charges.
The eventual documentation brought to light the Army Corps’ questionable billing practices, the state’s suit states.
The hundreds of questionable charges were for things like birdseed, bathroom fixtures, heating and cooling equipment at the visitor’s center, travel expenses, cedar chip bedding for duck boxes, maintenance of nature trails and parking lots, pedestrian bridges, environmental management, water quality testing, tree removal, and community outreach.
Many other expenses still lacked adequate explanation, including thousands of hours of “labor with no explanation of the work done, which employee was doing it, or how the work relates to operation and maintenance of the Caesar Creek Project,” the suit states.
About a year ago, there were indications that the Army Corps may be acknowledging improper charges had been made.
“We had what we thought was a productive meeting with the Army Corps,” said Safety-Service Director Brian Shidaker. “But then the tone changed. And soon communications from the Corps completely stopped.”
After the inappropriate charges became apparent, the City made partial payments on the operation and maintenance bills the past two years. The Army Corps went back on the offensive last fall by threatening to withhold federal subsidies due the state, the suit states. That action led to the Friday filing of the suit in Federal Claims Court, which has jurisdiction in disputes involving contracts with the federal government.
In addition to the improper charges, the state’s suit alleges that the Army Corps is illegally charging interest for the unpaid portions of the bills and that the Corps is not acting in good faith.
“We’re a small city,” Stanforth said. “For us to take on the federal government was daunting, but we knew it was necessary to remove this burden from our citizens. To have the state agree with us and take up our fight is gratifying.”
Bird seed to urinals
The itemized bills from the Army Corps — which include hundreds of line items — from the July 2015-June 2016 bill include this small sample:
• $144 for “toilet paper holder double”
• $400 for “double post locking toilet paper holders”
• $300 for “bird seed”
• $660 for “brochure stands”
• $60 for “sheet protectors for slides”
• $1,500 for “travel orders”
• $1,200 to “paint Visitor Center breakroom kitchen and hallway steps”
• $1,500 for “repairs Visitor Center urinal wall”
• $150 for “calendars and forms”
• $152 for “replacement mascot transport”
• $2,900 for “toner and office supplies”
• $2,200 to “deep clean tile floors”
• $1,200 for “med serv physicals CCL”
• $14,000 for “project office building staining”
• $1,500 for “uniform purchases”
• $1,800 for “security camera installation at the Visitor Center”
• $10,000 for “zero turn mower”
• $2,100 for “pm start-up of furnace at Proj Office”
• $2,400 for “springtime start-up on HVAC/AC units”
• $47 for “touch-up paint for Visitor Center hallway”
• $800 for “carpet cleaning”
• $2,100 for “office furniture”
• $2,500 for “removal of dead ash trees”
• $15,000 for “sealing concrete sidewalks Visitors Center/area office complex”
• $22,000 to “replace siding on pole barn”
• $799 for “table carts large”
• $495 for “desk adaptor”
• $900 to “remove oak tree at Visitor Center”
And for “in-house labor”:
• $1.07 million, for well over 100 job title line items, most of which are billed at a rate of between $50 and $100 — per hour.
• Titles range from geologist ($99/hour), biologist $118/hour), civil engineer ($113/hour), archaeologist ($105/hour) and procurement analyst ($94/hour) to realty specialist ($101/hour), regional economist ($99/hour), management analyst ($52/hour), maintenance worker ($46/hour), laborer ($34.37/hour) and student trainee ($32.13/hour).
“The city feels strongly that over the years the Army Corps has expanded the kinds of activities that it expects the city to help pay for,” said Shidaker. “The city never agreed to pay for these kinds of things and has an obligation to push back on the behalf of our citizens.”