|Legal Opinion: |
Text of Document: February 15, 2005
You have the following question: If the City wishes to use some method of allowing developers to recover the cost of the installation of utility infrastructure which they finance on the front end of the development, such as, but not necessarily limited to, allocating to them tap fee proceeds, is that method required to be outlined and prescribed in an ordinance, in a resolution, or in a utility policy?
MTAS utility consultant Bill Young informs me that utility installation cost recoupment contracts between developers and utilities are usually supported by a written policy adopted either by ordinance, by resolution, or by a utility policy. Case law on utility cost recoupment issues indicates that the same thing is true in other states. In fact, in some states, such policies derive from a state law that either requires or permits the utility to allow the developer to recoup his front end utility costs, and requires municipalities to adopt an ordinances governing that subject.
There is no state statute in Tennessee that either requires or permits the utility to allow the developer to recoup his front end costs, or that expressly requires that any such policy be governed by an ordinance, resolution or written policy. The instrument that must be used by any given city probably depends upon under what authority the utility system operates.
That authority in the case of the City is probably Tennessee Code Annotated, title 7, Chapter 35, Part 4, although I cannot say for certainty that is true. That statutory scheme requires utility rates and charges to be set by ordinance. As will be shown below, it appears that the adoption of connection or tap fees by a utility is a rate setting function. The ordinance should be clear as to what conditions govern contracts between the city and developers as to allowable cost recoupment.
Tennessee Code Annotated, § 7-35-414(a), provides that:
The governing body of any city or town acquiring and operating a waterworks and/or sewer system under the provisions of this part has the power, it is its duty, by ordinance, to establish and maintain just and equitable rates and charges for the use of and the service rendered by such waterworks and/or sewerage system, to be paid by the beneficiary of such service. Such rates and charges shall be adjusted so as to provide funds sufficient to pay all reasonable expenses of operation, repair, and maintenance, provide for a sinking fund for payment of principal and interest of bonds when due, and maintain an adequate depreciation account, and they may be readjusted as necessary form time to time by amendment to the ordinance establishing the rates then in force.
The term “this part” refers to Tennessee Code Annotated, title 7, chapter 35, part 4. Many water and sewer systems in Tennessee are operated under this statute. As I said above, I have I have been unable to determine whether with certainty that is true with respect to the City. The city’s charter and municipal code are silent on that point. The covenants of the city’s bonds issued for water or sewer improvements usually disclose the authority under which the city operates those systems. Those covenants should be checked for that purpose.
The city might operate its water and sewer system under its charter. Section 9, of the city’s charter contains a list of the board of mayor and aldermen’s corporate powers. Among those powers are these:
- “[t]o regulate the rates and services of public utilities insofar as not in conflict with such regulations by the State Railroad and Public Utilities Commission or other similar state or Federal agency have [sic] jurisdiction in such matter.” [Subsection (9)]
- “[t]o grant franchises or make contracts for public utilities and public services not to exceed a period of fifty years or in no event to exceed the period which may be prescribed by the general laws of the State of Tennessee at the effective date of this charter. The Board of Aldermen may prescribe the rates, fares, charges, regulations, and standards and conditions of service applicable to the service to be provided by the franchise grantee or contractor. [Subsection 8]
Neither §§ 9(9) nor 9(8) require utility rates to be set by ordinance. But if the city operates its water and sewer system under its charter, § 9(8), appears to be the provision that
would apply to rate setting. At the moment, the city’s water and sewer rates are set by ordinance. [See Title 18, Chapter 1, of the Municipal Code.]
The City has the power to contract with private persons or entities with respect to utility services, either under Tennessee Code Annotated, § 7-35-416, or under § 9(8) of its charter. But its power to enter into contracts that conflict with its rates and charges is limited under Tennessee Code Annotated, § 7-35-416, and probably under §9(8) of its charter. In City of Parsons v. Perryville Utility District, 594 S.W.2d 401 (Tenn. App. 1979), the City of Parsons entered into a contract with the Perryville Utility District under which the former would supply the latter with water for 45 years at a rate that could be increased every five years depending upon increases in the cost of performance of the contract, but expressly excluding the increased cost of capitalization of the city’s system. Pointing to Tennessee Code Annotated, § 6-1423 [now Tennessee Code Annotated, § 7-35-416] and Tennessee Code Annotated, § 6-1421 [now Tennessee Code Annotated, § 7-35-414], the Court held that the city could not bind itself to a contract that did not include the cost of increased capitalization of the city’s system. It had the power to enter into service contracts under Tennessee Code Annotated, § 7-35-416, but Tennessee Code Annotated, § 7-35-414 prescribed what costs must be included in “equitable rates and charges,” and that statute included the increased capitalization costs at issue. For that reason that part of the contract which blocked the city from including those costs in the calculation of increased capital cost for the purpose of increasing rates was both a violation of statutory law, and reflected illegal rate discrimination under the common law.
Incidentally, I find nothing in the Parsons City Charter or municipal code indicating that the city’s water system was established under Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 7, Chapter 35, Part 4. The Court declared that, “The contract in question was entered into pursuant to the statutory authority set forth in Chapter 68 of the Public Acts of 1933 codified as Sections 6-1408 through 6-1439 of Tennessee Code Annotated.” [Now Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 7, Chapter 35, Part 4.] Language in the case also indicates that the City of Parsons also argued that statute applied to abrogate the provision of the contract limiting its right to calculate increased capital costs in calculating its water rates.
I pointed out in an earlier letter to you a number of Tennessee cases reflecting instances in which cities or utility districts had entered into payback arrangements involving connection or tap fees. In addition to the cases cited in that letter, City of Parsons, above, appears to support such contracts, as long as they do not interfere with the rate-making power of cities, and are not discriminatory.
It has been held in other states that such payback contracts are legal provided they do not interfere with a municipality’s rate-making authority. But it makes sense that some kind of written policy govern such agreements to insure that they do not interfere with the city’s rate-making powers, do not discriminate, and are otherwise reasonable. In Farm & Home Investment Company v. Gannon, 622 S.W.2d 305 (Mr. Ct. App. 1981), the City of De Soto entered into a contract under which a developer would retain title to a water extension it had made at its expense, for ten years or until he had recovered $30,000, whichever occurred first. The developer’s recovery would come from tap-on fees. The contract provided that the city would not permit extensions or tap-ons without the developer’s consent and upon payment to the developer of a “reasonable” tap-on fee. In addition, any person wanting to tap-on to the developer’s extension was also required to pay the city a small tap on fee.
The Court held that there had been no improper delegation of De Soto’s authority to control and collect payment of tap-on fees. The Court reasoned that the developer could not prohibit persons from tapping-on to his extension provided they paid a reasonable tap-on fee, and that the city could collect its own tap-on fee. “But one thread remains unraveled,” said the Court: the tap-on fee charged by the developer was $5,000. The contract between the city and the developer provided “guidelines that charges must bear some reasonable relationship to construction costs and use of water in the extensions.” Because there was no evidence that the tap-on fee was reasonable, the case was remanded for evidence and a determination on that question.
[For a comprehensive treatment of what constitutes a reasonable tap fee, see Black v. City of Killeen, 78 S.W.3d 686 (Tex. Ct. App. 2002)].
Payback contracts that might reflect the discriminatory treatment of developers were at issue in Colonial Oak West, Inc. v. Township of East Brunswick, 296 A.2d 653 (N.J. 1972). There the Court reaffirmed its holding in an earlier case that under New Jersey Law it was within a municipality’s power “to require ‘that the work [on water main extensions] be done at the expense of the developer,’ either with or without a formula for partial or total reimbursement, provided the local ordinance permits the imposition, and ‘it is fair and equitable that this be done.” [At 655]
What was “fair and equitable”?
In determining the fairness and equitableness of the imposition, the primary concern is with the purchaser [Citations omitted] for it is generally to be assumed that the developer includes the water main expense as an item in fixing his selling price. If all developers have been treated alike by the Township and have paid the water main expenses without reimbursement, purchasers will as a practical matter have been dealt with equally and fairly; on the other hand if the Township has permitted the extension of water mains in other development at general municipal expense, the imposition of water main costs on these developments would operate unequally and unfairly insofar as the purchasers of these developments are concerned. [Citations omitted] [At 565-66]
I am not sure the Tennessee Courts would be as concerned about equity and fairness with regard to the purchasers as was the New Jersey Court, but the principle of fairness and equity, especially from an equal protection standpoint, is the same with respect to the developers themselves. If one developer is required to pay the cost of utility extensions under a policy (or under no policy), and another developer is not, the discriminatory effect of that treatment is clear.
Another reason for the city to have a written utility cost recoupment policy that prescribes in some detail the conditions under which developers are entitled to recoup their costs is that Tennessee Code Annotated, § 7-34-115, provides that, “Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law to the contrary, as a matter of public policy, municipal utility systems shall be operated on sound business principles as self-sufficient entities. User charges , rates and fees shall reflect the actual cost of providing the services rendered.”
Sidney D. Hemsley
Senior Law Consultant