By Timothy Cox
The city of St. Marys apparently has lost its lawsuit against Auglaize County and will be solely responsible for paying millions of dollars in environmental monitoring fees at the city landfill during the next 25 years.
City officials, however, haven't given up the fight yet.
Visiting Judge Charles Steele issued a judgment in the county's favor on Monday, ending a five-year legal fight over whether the city or county should pay the monitoring costs. The battle centered on a contract struck between the city and the county solid waste district in 1988 regarding operation of the St. Marys landfill, which was closed in June 1998.
The contract detailed how the entities would work together to run the landfill and who would pay certain costs. The contract ended Dec. 31, 2000, at which time the county stopped paying monitoring fees, arguing its obligation ended when the contract lapsed.
In his final ruling, Steele said both sides did not properly follow the terms of the contract. However, the city's failure to follow one of contract stipulations in the early days of the deal doomed its chances to recover financial damages, he said. "We're happy with the outcome," county Commissioner John Bergman said.
Bergman was hesitant to discuss other details of the case until commissioners hold a conference call with attorneys later today to discuss the judgment.
It could not be determined this morning if county officials will seek further court action to force the city to pays its legal bills for the case. Both sides spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorneys who are experts in solid waste issues.
Auglaize County has spent $421,740 to date; St. Marys officials estimated their costs to be at least $300,000 so far.
In addition to its huge legal bill, the city will now have to find a way to keep paying for the annual mandatory monitoring. The city has estimated those costs could be as high as $4.8 million through 2031. Costs have been running about $100,000 per year, Safety-Service Director Mike Weadock said.
The city's refuse collection department already has been strained by the costs of the landfill testing and pursuing the court case. To come up with adequate money to pay the monitoring fees, city officials might have to increase trash collection rates to city residents.
"There's no question there's been a lot of belt-tightening in that department to keep this thing going," Weadock said.
City officials only became aware of the issue this morning and still were planning their next move. Law Director Kraig Noble said Steele's ruling does not necessarily mean the case is closed.
The city has 30 days to file an appeal or file other motions with the court that could delay that deadline further, Noble said. Steele has favored the city's position on several issues, Noble noted, although the latest ruling seems to outweigh those prior issues.
"We are analyzing the case. There may be other events that take place," Noble said. "I don't think this is the end."
The complex litigation that has its own filing cabinet at the county Clerk of Courts office came down to the language in a 19-page contract inked in 1988.
In a partial judgment issue last year, Steele ruled that a paragraph of that agreement obligated the county to cover monitoring costs after closure of the landfill. However, in the latest, final ruling, Steele said the city's prior breach negated any obligation by the county to pay the costs.
Part of the contract also called for the city to conduct annual refuse collection studies and to set a rate that would earmark money for ongoing monitoring at the landfill. The county was to be on the hook only for any monitoring costs that exceeded the amount set aside by the city.
But the city apparently never did those rate studies or set any money aside.
At some point, for unknown reasons, the county's solid waste district began using $5 per ton surcharges on waste dumped at the St. Marys and Wapakoneta landfills to pay for monitoring at both sites.
"The court finds as a matter of law that the county's environmental monitoring obligations ... are dependent upon the city performing its obligations," Steele wrote in the filing. "If the city would have fully performed its contractual obligations, the obligations which the city now seeks to impose on the county would be minimal."
Because of the city's failure, it cannot recover any money from the county, Steele said.
"Such a substantial breach of the agreement precludes the city from recovering any amounts claimed to be owed to it," Steele wrote.