Bill Battle: Former Sunrise Mayor suing city, claims residents didn’t get infrastructure improvements they paid for

(WSVN) - The former mayor of Sunrise is suing his own city. It’s a legal showdown that could impact the wallets of tens of thousands of people in Broward County. 7’s Brian Entin has more on this water “Bill Battle.”

Roger Wishner says the utility bills in Sunrise are too high. He’s a homeowner here, but also the former mayor, and actually voted in favor of a 40 percent increase in water and sewer bills back in 2009.

Now no longer an elected official, he’s suing his own city, saying in retrospect, his “yes” vote was a mistake.

Roger Wishner: “I think it was a bad idea, I think that the people that are paying it obviously have overpaid for the utility bills.”

Wishner says he voted for the rate hike because of doom-and-gloom warnings about the utility system.

Roger Wishner: “That we would have busting pipes, crumbling pipes, the infrastructure needed to be replaced, and so it needed to be done immediately.”

Roger Wishner
Roger Wishner

The rate hike was supposed to pay back $115 million in bonds the city issued to fund improvements. But the lawsuit claims, “…the city has only completed a fraction of the promised repair and replacement projects.”

And therefore customers have not gotten what they paid more for.

Tim Hartley, attorney: “It is our allegation that the monies that were raised were not properly spent, have not been spent in full, and have not been spent for the purposes promised, which is basically to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of the Sunrise Utility Department.”

The 2009 rate increase bumped the average water and sewer bill in Sunrise from $53.17 to $74.44.

Today, it’s $101.22 because of inflation.

And this isn’t just about Sunrise. The Sunrise Utilities Department also provides water and sewer services to Weston — and parts of Davie and Southwest Ranches. In total, more than 215,000 residents and businesses.

Tim Hartley: “We’re asking the court to approve a class action, whereby each affected utility customer receives some kind of reimbursement.”

The City of Sunrise turned down our request for an on-camera interview, but in a statement stated it was “vigorously defending this lawsuit as being unsupportable by law or facts.”

City officials added the rate increase was necessary to keep up with rising operating costs, and to date, “The city has spent nearly $114 of the $115 million in bond money on water and wastewater capital infrastructure.”

The city says its utilities department responds to hundreds of water and sewer line breaks and failures a year.

7News covered one in 2013 that left more than 500 residents without water for 15 hours.

Resident: “The pipes here are pretty old, I mean, I’ve lived in Sunrise for most of my life, since ’72.”

Whether Sunrise has now done enough to fix its utility system to justify the seven-year-old rate hike may ultimately be a question for the courts.

The city told 7News that if Wishner were to prevail, utility customers would experience an immediate rate increase to cover the cost of the lawsuit, bonds and operating expenses. But since the lawsuit itself calls for customers to get money back, it’s unclear what the ultimate financial impact would be. Residents may want to follow this court case very closely.

And, if you think there’s something 7News should investigate, give us a call at 305-627-CLUE or 954-921-CLUE. You may also send an email to clue@wsvn.com.

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