August 24, 2016 Edition

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WR appropriates money
for fire fee rebates

Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

The Walnut Ridge City Council voted to initiate the refunding process of three years worth of fire fees that may be considered an illegal exaction in the court of law.

The fee was removed from the water bill at the last city council meeting after a fax from Mark Rees Law Firm out of Jonesboro requested information regarding what the firm labeled as the Walnut Ridge fire tax.

City Attorney Nancy Hall conducted research and determined that the fee could be an illegal exaction. Even though no ruling has been made, the council authorized Hall and Mayor Charles Snapp to develop a method of offering rebates for the last three years worth of fees, which represent the statute of limitations on this type of case.

The amount collected in those three years has been determined to be $255,740.93, which will now be designated to its own line item within the city budget.

The rebates will be offered for three years due to the statute of limitations. Anyone who paid the fee between Aug. 15, 2013, and Aug. 15, 2016, can claim a rebate for the amount paid during that time, a maximum of $108 for residential meters and $90 for commercial meters.

Snapp said there is still work needing to be done before the rebates can be collected. He added that the city would publicize and send out notices once the rebates can be claimed.

Until all rebates have been given or the statute of limitation expires on Sept. 30, 2019, the city will still be vulnerable to a class action lawsuit. Hall explained that if a suit is filed, then the city will have to cease rebates and all who did not receive one will automatically be included in the class action lawsuit.

Aldermen said they have spoken with several citizens who don't want the rebate. Snapp added that there has been an overwhelming outpour of support for the fire department.

Fire Chief Frank Owens asked if there was a way for citizens to request money be paid back to the city. Hall said that they are working on ways for citizens to turn back the money if they desire but it has to show that the city paid the rebate in order for them to be opted out of a class action lawsuit.

If a lawsuit were filed, Hall said there are still two lines of defense the city could use. The first of which is the voluntary payment rule that states if a person voluntarily pays with full knowledge or access to full knowledge of the facts, then they have no claims to get that money back. She said this defense would most likely be enough to stop a lawsuit but if it wasn't, then the city could also argue that such a suit could financially cripple the city.

If the lawsuit is filed and then thrown out, then anybody who hadn't collected a rebate is no longer entitled to a payout.

Hall said the best outcome for the city would be for everyone to collect early. As it stands, she is not sure what will happen to any remaining funds after the three-year period. A request from Mark Rees Law Firm was for any remaining funds to be paid to the state.

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