Town leaders silent on situation; legal fees now exceed damages sought
OSWEGO — The town of Mexico is continuing a lawsuit against Oswego County that claims the town is owed more than $26,000 in reimbursement for winter maintenance of county roads, rekindling a nearly three-year legal battle that has cost the town more than $31,000 in legal fees.
Mexico officials sued Oswego County in 2018, claiming the county owed thousands in unpaid snow plowing bills from December 2016. The lawsuit centers on the snow removal and ice control contract between the Oswego County Highway Department and the county’s constituent towns, including Mexico, in which the county pays towns to maintain the county roadways that fall within their borders.
Following an initial dismissal in local court but a successful appeal by town of Mexico officials, the original suit was discontinued earlier this year and the town filed an updated complaint against the county earlier this month, ensuring the years-long legal battle will continue.
Mexico filed the initial lawsuit in January 2018 alleging the county was unwilling to pay for services rendered, specifically represented by a pair of invoices dated December 2016 totaling $26,001.
Mexico officials retained Syracuse-based law firm Bond, Shoeneck & King to handle the litigation, and as of early June had paid the firm more than $31,000 to represent the town in the matter. Oswego County, meanwhile, has an in-house legal team, and excluding a few hundred dollars for filing and printing fees, has not incurred any additional legal costs due to the litigation.
Oswego County officials confirmed the county has been served with a new summons and complaint, which according to court records obtained by The Palladium-Times were filed with the Oswego County Clerk July 10. The updated lawsuit seeks the same $26,001.19, plus statutory interest, in addition to costs and disbursements related to the action and “any other relief the court deems proper.”
“It’s sad that we have to get to this point,” said Oswego County Legislature Chairman James Weatherup, R-Central Square, of the litigation. “But we’re just trying to make things fair and apply things fairly to every town. That’s our position and we’ll let the courts decide who’s right.”
Mexico Supervisor David Anderson, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, previously told The Palladium-Times in 2018 that the county had paid late invoices in the past, and noted the town’s bills were submitted late because a new highway superintendent wasn’t trained on the billing submission process by the county.
“This is money that belongs to the town of Mexico,” Anderson said in 2018. “There was never once an issue with quality or timeliness of work being done. There has never been an issue with our town. We take this very seriously. That money belongs to the taxpayers.”
County officials said the parties met (along with the town of Minetto, which had a similar grievance with the county) prior to the filing of the suit in an attempt to reach a settlement. The county at the time agreed to pay a portion of the money Mexico claimed to be owed, officials said, but not the December 2016 invoices at the center of the legal dispute. Mexico began their litigation several months later.
The outcome of that meeting is disputed, with Anderson previously saying the county agreed to pay all the monies owed and county officials.
Anderson has said there was a lack of communication between the parties, and added the county “can’t arbitrarily decide not to pay someone for services.”
Back in 2018, Anderson said Mexico taxpayers were hurt due to the county’s unwillingness to pay the $26,000. If the $26,001 initial loss hurt taxpayers, certainly the $31,631 the town has spent on legal fees related to the lawsuit as of early June has compounded the financial toll on taxpayers.
Several county officials have argued the Mexico Town Board never formally authorized the initial lawsuit, and the associated expenses, but noted the updated filing by the town makes the same claims as the initial suit — this time with the apparent backing of the town board.
The disputed contract, which the two parties entered into in November 2016, states the county would not be obligated to pay bills submitted more than 30 days after services were rendered. Mexico’s complaint alleges the county in the past paid invoices submitted late without objection, both to Mexico and other towns, and therefore waived its right to enforce the deadline.
Since the lawsuit was filed, the two parties have not signed a snow and ice contract, and the county Highway Department has maintained the county roads within the town of Mexico.
Legislator Stephen Walpole, R-Scriba, recently described the entire ordeal as “a waste of everyone’s time,” calling the county and town being at odds “a tough situation.” Walpole conceded the initial $26,000 loss was a hit to Mexico taxpayers, but expressed concern for Mexico taxpayers as the town’s legal bills continue to pile up.
Walpole, who in recent years has served as chair of the county Infrastructure, Facilities and Technology Committee that oversees the county Highway Department, said the snow and ice removal contract was altered prior to the 2016-2017 winter season because the previous deal was vague and allowed towns to bill for services on county roads with few restrictions.
Though the 30-day hard deadline for submitting invoices may seem harsh, Walpole said it was previously “so far the other way,” the county had to rein in the process after years of loose restrictions.
“Everybody agreed it was out of hand and needed to be dealt with,” Walpole said of the previous contract, noting the county may have been at fault for allowing it to go on for years, but the previous actions, or lack thereof, shouldn’t preclude officials from putting an end to what was seen as abuses of the system. “Eventually you have to deal with it, and we chose to deal with it this way.”
Under the vague language of previous deals, Walpole said towns had an incentive to plow, sand and salt the roads more frequently than required, and bill the county to cover the costs of all labor and materials. Walpole said the amount towns billed the county fluctuated wildly, and it was under this premise that the county revised the snow and ice contract.
Billing records obtained by The Palladium-Times show prior to the updated snow and ice removal contract, the town of Mexico, between 2010 and 2014, consistently charged the county more than double the amount per mile for services than other towns in the county. The town of Mexico charged the highest per mile rate in each of the five years between 2010 and 2014.
Over the five-year period, the town of Mexico charged $12,229 per mile for about 12 miles of county roadways. The next highest per mile charge over that period was $7,642 by the town of Orwell. On average, towns charged the county a little less than $5,900 per mile.
In 2013 and 2014, Mexico charged the county $15,845 and $18,216 per mile, respectively, while throughout the entire five-year span no town — other than Mexico — charged more than $10,600 per mile in a single year.
Between 2010 and 2014, Mexico charged the county about $148,500 annually for snow and ice removal services. The most recent incarnation of the snow and ice contract calls for towns to be paid $8,000 per mile to maintain county roadways, which Walpole said provides incentive for towns to use less materials and save money.
A snow and ice removal agreement between the two parties would, under current conditions, pay Mexico nearly $100,000 according to county records.
Snow and ice removal contracts are entered into each year, and due to the pending litigation, the county terminated its contract with Mexico in February 2018 and has not entered into an agreement in the following years.
Walpole has repeatedly said county officials would be willing to revisit and possibly renew Mexico’s contract once the litigation is complete.
Following publication of this story, an attorney from Bond, Schoeneck and King responded to The Palladium-Times, but said the plaintiffs had no comment at this time.