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Fight for utility fees is not over for attorney Joe Mason

BROOKSVILLE — A lawsuit filed nearly five years ago seeking to refund regulatory fees to former Florida Water Services customers in Spring Hill might finally have come to an end.

The Florida Supreme Court has refused to hear the case, according to an order issued Monday. That means that the prior 5th District Court of Appeal ruling stands and the $3.5-million held in escrow since the suit was filed would return to the Hernando County Utilities Department to be used for utility service upgrades.

The news was announced by County Attorney Garth Coller to county commissioners, department heads and the public during an orientation session for new commissioners this week.

"Obviously, this is a giant win for the county,'' said assistant county attorney Jon Jouben, the attorney who has been handling the case for the past several years.

But the attorney who brought the case on behalf of Florida Water Services customers, Joe Mason, said the case was not a win for the county. And as far as whether it is over, Mason said, "not by a long shot.''

The case is about the regulatory fees that customers of the former Florida Water Services paid the county beginning in 1994, which is when the county began to regulate the utility.

When the county bought the utility in 2003, Nicholas and Ann Morana filed a class-action lawsuit, which argued that, when the county became the owner and not the regulator, it should have returned the fees. In one of his final official actions, former County Judge Peyton Hyslop agreed.

The county argued that the case should not have been heard in County Court because of the size of the monetary award sought, but was unsuccessful at the circuit level in making that argument, Jouben explained. But once the case made it to the District Court of Appeal, that court overturned the lower court ruling.

Then Mason, representing the Moranas, took the case to the Florida Supreme Court. The court denied the petition for review in its order.

In layman's terms, Jouben said, "that means they don't want to hear about it ever again.''

But Mason, who is known for pressing cases beyond where many attorneys would stop, said this week he would see the county back in Circuit Court. He said all the Florida Supreme Court's ruling states is that the high court doesn't want jurisdiction. To Mason, that means the case wasn't significant enough to garner the court's time and attention.

That is not the same as someone deciding on the merits of the case, Mason said.

"That says go fight some more,'' he said.

Jouben said he is not surprised that Mason is saying he will continue fighting the case.

"We can't stop him from filing anything else, but this is, in effect, the end of the case,'' Jouben said.

Mason was reportedly going to collect about a third of the fund in fees if he won the case. Jouben said court papers showed that the Florida Water customers might have collected up to $300 on average. Now the fund, including interest, will instead go to make improvements to the county's utility system.

Jouben said anyone can file anything with the court, but that doesn't mean you can win. And he doubted that Mason would have any chance at victory based on the merits of his case, regardless of the forum.

"This doesn't change anything about our analysis of being able to use those funds,'' he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Fight for utility fees is not over for attorney Joe Mason 11/14/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 8:23pm]
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