On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County.
Conford, Pressler and King. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, J.A.D.
[163 NJSuper Page 504] This is an action in lieu of prerogative writs brought by certain residents of single-family dwelling units in Randolph Township against the Randolph Township Municipal Utilities Authority (Randolph MUA). The action seeks relief from payment of an annual $125 service charge imposed on the owners of these single-family dwellings by the Randolph MUA. Specifically, the complaint demands relief (1) permitting the matter to proceed as a class action, (2) declaring the illegality of a portion of the service charge and (3) restraining the collection of $75 of the total $125 service charge. The trial judge certified the class and thereafter, on cross-motions for summary judgment, granted judgment for defendant Randolph MUA. On appeal plaintiffs
contend that the judge erred in dismissing the action as time-barred by R. 4:69-6 and in holding on the merits that defendant had a right to impose the $125 service charges upon them.
In October 1972 the Randolph MUA began operation of the water and sewer systems in Randolph Township. About 145 single-family dwelling units in Randolph Township had always been connected directly to the adjacent Town of Dover's sewer system. The residents of these units comprise the plaintiff class. These plaintiffs' sewer lines had never been connected to any sewer lines owned or operated by defendant Randolph MUA. In the 1950s these plaintiffs or their predecessors had opted to connect to Dover's sewer system rather than use individual septic systems. Individual connection fees of $350 were paid to Dover at that time. The sewerage of the class plaintiffs had been transmitted through the Dover system to the treatment plant operated now by the Rockaway Valley Regional Sewerage Authority (Rockaway Authority), which also served nine other municipalities and authorities in the region.
Plaintiffs had been charged, in years past, a $5 annual service charge by Dover. This charge was raised by Dover to $10 in 1973. This was plaintiffs' total outlay for the transmission of their sewerage through the Dover system and for its ultimate treatment and disposition. The $10 fee was devoted entirely to pipe maintenance by Dover. In the 1950s and 1960s the Dover sewerage had been treated without charge by the City of Jersey City Treatment Plant in the Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills, the predecessor to the Rockaway Authority. The Rockaway Authority was formed in the early 1970s as the successor to Jersey City's facility.
Sometime early in 1976 defendant Randolph MUA discovered that it had been billed for several years by the Rockaway Authority for the treatment of all sewerage originating in Randolph Township, including the sewerage which came from plaintiffs' residences, but which was transmitted exclusively through the Dover system. Also, early in 1976
Dover decided to bill Randolph Township annually for the use its residents made of the Dover system, rather than continue the customary individual billing to each connectee. By letter of February 17 defendant Randolph MUA agreed to pay Dover $10 annually for each connection of a Randolph Township residence to the Dover sewer system.
On March 1, 1976 defendant Randolph MUA notified the residents of Randolph Township comprising the plaintiff class and connected to the Dover system that henceforth they would be customers of the Randolph MUA and would be charged the standard annual fee for single-family residences, $125. The written notice to the Dover connectees included the following:
It had been our understanding that the Town of Dover assumed all responsibility for your sewerage. However, based on recent disclosures by the Rockaway Valley Regional Sewerage Authority, we learned that the Randolph Township Municipal Utilities Authority bears the financial responsibility for your sewerage, and has been incurring the costs for the past several years.
As a result, commencing April 1, 1976, you will become a sewer customer of the Randolph Township Municipal Utilities Authority. By State Law, all of our customers must be billed at the same rate.
The class plaintiffs thereafter became the "customers" of the Randolph MUA, even though their sewerage did not pass through any lines maintained by the Randolph MUA. However, plaintiffs received the same collection and treatment services at the same fee as all other residents of single-family dwelling units in Randolph Township.
The Rockaway Authority provides, pursuant to service contracts, treatment facilities for sewerage originating in the Townships of Randolph, Boonton, Denville and Rockaway; the Towns of Boonton and Dover; the Boroughs of Rockaway, Wharton and Victory Gardens, and the City of Jersey City. The cost of treatment is apportioned and billed to each member municipality or its municipal utilities authority. Randolph Township's total billing from the Rockaway Authority in 1976 was about $52,000. This cost
was allocated on the basis of the municipality of origin of the effluent, rather than the originating collecting system. Thus, the charge for the class plaintiffs' sewer gallonage was billed to Randolph Township rather than Dover.
A full understanding of the intricate interdependence of the sewerage disposal scheme serving Randolph Township residents requires a detailed exposition of the four collection routes in the system.*fn1
1. Randolph Township to the Rockaway Authority through Denville.
This agreement between Randolph Township and Denville is based on a charge of $.25 per thousand gallons as a transmission/maintenance fee for the use of the Denville sewer lines utilized by this group of Randolph Township residents. In addition, the Randolph MUA pays Denville $17,000 a year for its share of the cost of the Denbrook interceptor line through which the effluent flows. This sum is payable each year for 20 years -- a total of $340,000 -- as Randolph Township's capital contribution to the Denville system. Denville and Randolph Township each own the lines located in their respective municipalities. The Randolph MUA pays the annual treatment charge directly to the Rockaway Authority.
2. Randolph Township to the Rockaway Authority through Victory Gardens.
Randolph Township pays the Borough of Victory Gardens a transmission/maintenance fee of $.27 per thousand gallons, an estimated annual charge of $29.56 per unit, for the flow of its residents' sewerage through lines owned by Victory
Gardens, which owns all connecting sewer lines, both within Victory Gardens and within Randolph Township. The cost of treatment is paid directly to the ...