Court orders newspaper to pay Annapolis $100,000 Capital's claims over fees called 'palpably absurd'

June 06, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A state appeals court yesterday ordered an Annapolis newspaper to pay the city more than $100,000 in back sewer and water fees, calling the paper's claims that the fees are barred by the First Amendment "palpably absurd."

The Court of Special Appeals ruled that the Capital must pay $86,373 in 1993 and 1994 sewer and water bills that the newspaper had disputed.

Rignal W. Baldwin Jr., the lawyer who handled the case for the City of Annapolis, estimated that with interest, the newspaper owes more than $100,000.

Baldwin said the newspaper has 30 days to ask the Court of Appeals to review the case, but noted that the state's highest court considers only about 150 of 800 such requests each year.

"I would hope that the newspaper would see the strong language of the opinion and take from it that they should pay their bills and get back to the business of selling newspapers," Baldwin said.

Edward D. Casey, Capital executive editor, referred questions to attorney William A. Franch, who declined comment.

In a 10-page opinion, Alan M. Wilner, the court's chief judge, called the newspaper's claims hollow, "wholly unwarranted" and lacking "even the slightest merit."

"The assertion that the rates charged it constitute an unlawful assessment against a newspaper in violation of the First Amendment is palpably absurd," he wrote in the unanimous opinion.

The ruling affirmed Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Martin A. Wolff's decision of June 6, 1995.

The city sued the newspaper in 1994 after it failed to pay 1993 and 1994 sewer and water bills. The paper filed a counterclaim seeking a refund of $174,935, alleging it was being overcharged.

But Wilner said "the hollowness of the [paper's] claims" was demonstrated by "the fact that it paid the contractual rates for six years without protest."

The dispute arose after the paper moved into a new plant at 2000 Capital Drive, just across the city line, and agreed Sept. 19, 1985, to the same water and sewer rates as other city customers. The Capital agreed to pay an annual fee for water service equal to the real estate taxes that it would have owed if the property were in the city.

That real estate tax fee -- the focus of the dispute -- was to end when the property was annexed to the city. It was annexed on May 26, 1994, according to court records. The newspaper paid the fees from 1986 until 1992, court records show.

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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