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McKeesport progressing toward resolution of suit

| Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, 4:26 a.m.

McKeesport's solicitor said the city is making progress in resolving a dispute over the municipal service fee that resulted in the filing of a class action lawsuit.

“We are going down to meet with (the attorney for city resident Deborah Schorr) on Thursday to resolve this matter,” Solicitor J. Jason Elash said on Monday.

Attorney Evalynn Welling of the Community Justice Project filed the suit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court against the city and its administrator, Matt Gergely.

The Community Justice Project describes itself as a nonprofit, public interest law firm that is part of the state's Legal Aid Network.

With offices in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Reading, the project's stated mission is to protect and expand the civil rights of poor families and low-wage workers.

Schorr is described in the filing as “a low-income person, whose income is made up of disability payments due to her chronic and disabling medical conditions.”

She feared losing her home “because she was never able to pay off her balance entirely,” the lawsuit states.

The suit was filed last week and Trib Total Media found a copy of it in court files, but, Elash said the city has not been served notice.

He said a conversation with Welling on Monday was fruitful,

“We've made significant progress,” Elash said.

Welling confirmed that there had been discussions with the city, but otherwise declined comment, telling questioners to refer to the text of the lawsuit for specifics.

At issue is the interest added to delinquent bills for the $280 annual fee for “essential municipal services such as fire, police, street lighting and municipal waste collection,” according to the court filing.

In order to get payment quicker, city policy has been to add 1.5 percent in interest each month, then to cap that increase at eight months.

“The previous administration wanted to get the whole 10 percent as quickly as possible,” Elash said.

As noted in the lawsuit, interest is not to exceed 10 percent a year under the state's Municipal Claims Act.

It was to stay at 10 percent for the rest of the year, then the process was repeated in the second year if payment hadn't been made.

Schorr may have been charged more than 10 percent.

“Apparently there was some error in the calculation on her bill,” Elash said. “We have to determine if that was done in any other case.”

Welling claims the delinquency charge imposed by the city is illegal. He called on the city to “disgorge the excess sums collected as unjust enrichment.”

Welling claims in her filing that there is evidence that more than 100 others have the same problem and may be entitled to a refund of overpayments imposed by the city.

It is not the first time the project has taken on a court case involving city interests.

On its website, under housing issues the project refers to a 2007 federal court case involving the McKeesport Housing Authority.

The project said it was determined that applicants for federal housing subsidies have the right to be eligible for benefits that cannot be denied by the use of arbitrary disqualification rules.

According to federal court records, Davis et al. vs. the housing authority was turned over to mediation.

Bobby Kerlik contributed to this story. He and Patrick Cloonan are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Cloonan at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or