On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. L-1852-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 24, 2009
Before Judges Fuentes and Simonelli.
Defendants Sandra Joseph and David Stott appeal from a judgment entered by the Law Division in favor of plaintiff, the Jersey City Municipal Utilities Authority (JCMUA or Authority), a public body organized under the Municipal and County Utilities Authorities Law (MCUAL), N.J.S.A. 40:14B-1 to -78, to provide the residents of Jersey City with various services, including water and sewage. The court found defendants liable for fees incurred for water service provided to defendants' commercial property. The court also awarded plaintiff counsel fees in connection with the prosecution of this case pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:14B-46.
Defendants now appeal, arguing that the court erred: (1) in construing the MCUAL to apply to their property; (2) in not finding that plaintiff's actions violated the Consumer Fraud Act; (3) in awarding plaintiff $21,928.12 in counsel fees; and (4) in calculating the simple interest accrued on the outstanding balance. We reject these arguments and affirm.
We summarize the following facts from the record developed before the trial court.
Commencing in 1998, the JCMUA began providing fire suppression services in the form of standby lines that supply water to properties in case of a fire. The Authority also established a uniform rate structure for service charges, including service for fire protection systems.
At all times relevant to this case, defendants owned a multifamily mixed-use building, consisting of eight apartments and one commercial unit located on Grove Street in Jersey City. In January 1999, defendants sought municipal approval to renovate the Grove Street property. The formal renovations plans included "a fire sprinkler system and a four[-]inch water main, with a branch for a two[-]inch domestic water supply with a meter." The technical drawings were prepared by an architect and ultimately approved by the City of Jersey City. The plans specifically provided for the installation of a separate meter for the fire-line service.
On August 31, 1999, defendants paid the JCMUA a tap fee for a four-inch water main connection and a two-inch water main branch. Also on that date defendants' plumber, Balacco Plumbing, obtained municipal authorization to connect into the JCMUA water system to provide water service to the property. Construction of the fire sprinkler system and water supply line commenced in September 1999. Although there were two connections, a two-inch line to service the building's regular water needs and a four-inch line to service the fire suppression system, Balacco testified that he did not install separate meters for each line.
By October 1999, defendant's property was fully integrated into the JCMUA system, and defendants began to receive bills on a regular basis. The City issued a final Certificate of Occupancy in January 2000, acknowledging the property as a mixuse building consisting of eight residential apartments and one commercial unit.
In February 2004, the JCMUA retained Gustella Associates, Inc., to determine the cost of providing standby fire-line services. Pursuant to recommendations made by Gustella in its formal report, JCMUA increased the monthly rate for a four-inch fire-line from $105 to $114.14. The increase took effect in mid-2004. It is important to emphasize that the increase was based on the diameter of the service line pipe, not on whether the property was residential or commercial.
JCMUA contracted with United Water to oversee billing, collection, and metering. Under this system, fire-line services are billed on a monthly basis; customers are responsible for obtaining separate meters to gauge the consumption of regular water services and distinguish it from the service provided to fire-lines. After the meters are installed, customers must ...