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Utilities locked in lawsuit over lost equipment

PORT RICHEY — Mad Hatter Utility Inc. said it had a deal with the old owner of the Jasmine Lakes Wastewater Treatment Plant. For years, Mad Hatter was allowed to store $20,000 in wastewater equipment on the site of the Port Richey plant.

The deal wasn't supposed to change when the treatment plant changed hands a few years ago. Mad Hatter said when Aqua Utilities Inc. bought the Jasmine Lakes site it agreed to keep storing Mad Hatter's equipment.

But now that $20,000 in equipment is gone, according to Mad Hatter, which filed suit last week against Aqua Utilities in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

The allegation is civil theft. Mad Hatter said Aqua Utilities sold the $20,000 worth of equipment in September 2003 for $10,000.

But Mad Hatter said Aqua Utilities wasn't authorized to sell the equipment or pocket the proceeds — which were "far below" what the equipment was worth, the suit said.

The lawsuit, filed July 21, said the disputed equipment included three 12-foot diameter steel wastewater treatment tanks, two motors, aluminum handrails and a galvanized walkway.

Mad Hatter, which is based in Land O'Lakes, said it didn't learn of the "wrongful" sale of its equipment until 2004, when a potential buyer told them it was no longer at the Port Richey site.

Mad Hatter said its agreement with Aqua Utilities to store the equipment was so well known, according to the suit, that employees there joked they should start charging Mad Hatter rent.

Mad Hatter wants damages, attorneys' fees and costs on top of that $20,000. In a letter sent to Aqua Utilities this month, Mad Hatter demanded $241,677.50.

Mad Hatter is no stranger to suing, or winning. In 1996 the utility won a $1.8-million decision against Pasco County. Mad Hatter argued the county had tried to drive it out of business by connecting its private customers to the county's own sewage treatment plant.

In 2000 both sides settled for $300,000. In February the County Commission voted to join a multicounty group that buys private water utilities.

None of the parties in the suit could be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Utilities locked in lawsuit over lost equipment 07/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2008 11:20am]
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