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East Williston must pay higher water rates, says court

East Williston is facing an estimated $600,000 bill from its water supplier, Williston Park, for nonpayment and penalties after losing a three-year legal battle against increased rates.

In a July 9 decision, the state Appellate Court denied East Williston's bid to block a 13 percent increase from $3.83 per 1,000 gallons to $4.33. While the matter was in court, Mayor David Tanner said the village paid the former rate of $2.99 per thousand gallons and put the difference in an escrow account.

Williston Park Mayor Paul Ehrbar said $600,000 "is in the ballpark" of what East Williston owes.

East Williston filed two lawsuits over rate hikes, the first when Williston Park raised the rate in April 2011 to $3.83 per thousand gallons. East Williston won that court fight when it was determined Williston Park had failed to hold a public hearing before imposing the hike. The rate was raised to $4.33 in August 2012, which also triggered a court action.

In both cases, East Williston argued the rate was "arbitrary and capricious," but in the latest ruling, the appellate panel said, the increase "was rational, and was not arbitrary and capricious or illegal.A municipal water supplier may charge a higher rate to customers outside its borders, including other municipalities, so long as the difference has a rational basis.

Tanner, who following last month's court ruling unsuccessfully proposed creating a water district that would be owned and operated by both communities, said East Williston is paying too much for water. He described the current rate as "price-gouging" and said the village is being taken advantage of because it has no other water supply alternatives. "We're a captive audience," he said.

The mayor said that part of the hike was additional profit for Williston Park.

Williston Park Trustee Teresa Thomann said a joint water district would not work because village residents have been supporting the water system for decades and it would be unfair for them to take on a partner now. "We're interested in exploring any options that will permanently resolve this," Thomann said. "But making a water district out of what Williston Park owns would not be fair to our residents -- to solely give away 50 percent of our assets isn't fair to our taxpayers."

But Tanner said consolidation "is the direction governments throughout the state want to take, and this is an argument to go in that direction. Those who are paying for the services that they don't provide themselves are subject to price-gouging."

"That's one man's opinion," Ehrbar countered. "The court of appeals has upheld this as a valid rate."

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