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Lewes BPW suit against city shows weakness

August 9, 2019

Lewes BPW sues City of Lewes. That headline should never have to be written about a little town like Lewes.

What it comes down to is that the water, sewer and electric ratepayers of Lewes are now paying legal fees so the elected members of the Board of Public Works can take the elected members of mayor and council to court. At the same time, the city’s taxpayers, which are most of the utility ratepayers, are also paying legal fees for the mayor and council to defend the city against the suit.

On the surface, the issue appears to be the BPW’s reluctance to force property owners outside the city – but within the BPW’s two-mile-radius service area – to sign a pre-annexation agreement before they are given permission to hook into any or all BPW services. Mayor and council don’t want property owners outside the city to have access to BPW services unless they are willing at some point to become part of the city through annexation.

BPW members, as witnessed by their suit, don’t feel the city has the authority to force them to require the signing of such agreements. But why should property owners outside the city be able to pick and choose which services they can get from the BPW but not be a part of the city?

Deeper down, the issue is whether the city has ultimate authority over the BPW. A classic power struggle. Maybe it will take an expensive court battle to resolve this question, but to what end? 

The BPW model has worked successfully for more than a century in Lewes. But over the decades, the question has occasionally been raised whether there would be more efficiency and coordination and less bureaucracy if the utilities were placed directly under mayor and council as in most municipalities. The answer has typically been that the BPW/city system is working well. Why change?

This apparently unprecedented suit now shows weakness in the system. Is it time to visit the question again?

In the meantime, the city’s two respected elected agencies should find a way to settle this without going to court on the taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ dime.

  • Editorials are considered by the editorial board and written by Dennis Forney, Publisher Emeritus, with occasional contributions from other board members: Trish Vernon, CoPublisher and Editor; Dave Frederick, Sports Editor Emeritus; Jen Ellingsworth, Associate Editor; Nick Roth, Sports Editor; and Chris Rausch, CoPublisher and General Manager.

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