A long-running dispute over wastewater costs between Atwater and Winton has morphed into a lawsuit.
Officials at the Winton Water and Sanitary District claim Atwater has been overcharging Winton ratepayers during the past few years, totaling $1,922,454 through late 2011.
The dispute goes back to 2002, when Winton entered into a contract with Atwater that allowed the town to discharge its wastewater into Atwater's wastewater treatment plant, according to the lawsuit. In exchange, Winton bought capacity at the plant and agreed to pay a monthly service charge.
But when Atwater adopted a new sewer-fee ordinance, the move substantially increased Winton's charges.
Winton officials claim the increased amounts include sewer collection costs, costs associated with bonds and costs associated with building new facilities to benefit a single user -- all extra charges that shouldn't have fallen on the backs of Winton ratepayers, according to the original agreement.
Bartle Wells, an independent consultant company that specializes in utility rate studies, determined that the overcharges totaled $1.9 million, said Dale Bacigalupi, the Winton Water and Sanitary District's Fresno-based attorney.
The circumstances around the alleged overpayments sparked several attempted discussions between the two entities, but Atwater City Manager Kathy Kivley has been unresponsive toward the district, according to the lawsuit.
Kivley declined to comment on the pending litigation.
In October 2011, Kivley spoke at a Winton Water and Sanitary District meeting and said she would give the district a letter responding to claims of overcharging once she reviewed the Bartle Wells study.
"To date, Winton has not received any response from Atwater," according to the lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 24 in Merced County Superior Court.
The lawsuit is the result of the district's unsuccessful attempts to try to bring Atwater to the negotiating table, Bacigalupi said.
"But in fairness to Atwater, since the lawsuit's been served, we have been contacted by the city," he said. "They are prepared to meet with us now and discussions are going to begin shortly over the complaints that the district has."
The district and Atwater have each designated a committee to meet with each other to talk about the issue, Bacigalupi said.
Bacigalupi, who's done legal work for the district since 1986, said he hopes the issue will be resolved out of court.
"That's the preferred way of settling this dispute, and we have high hopes that that will happen," he said. "We're optimistic that things may work out that will allow us to solve our differences in a businesslike way instead of through the court system."
Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, whose District 4 covers Winton, said she hopes communication improves and the issue is resolved soon since some claim that Winton is still being overcharged $100,000 a month.
"It's unfortunate that it couldn't get resolved prior to this, but I guess that's what the court system is for," she added.
Atwater Mayor Joan Faul declined to comment on the issue Tuesday. Neither Winton Water and Sanitary District President Carol Bonin nor Atwater City Attorney Jose Sanchez could be reached for comment.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.