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Petaluma sued over uses of sewer funds

A former city councilman and longtime critic of Petaluma government is suing the city over what he claims is the misappropriation of millions of dollars in sewage treatment fees.

Bryant Moynihan long has challenged how the city uses the money it collects from water and wastewater ratepayers, claiming it has been used to cover mismanagement of the city budget and to augment overspending in the general fund.

In a lawsuit filed this month in Sonoma County Superior Court, Moynihan alleges the city has wrongfully spent at least $4.7 million from the wastewater fund since 2004.

He is demanding the city stop such spending, repay the general fund and pay his attorney's fees.

The city hasn't filed a response to the suit. A case management hearing is set for May 3.

At issue is whether certain functions that may be indirectly or partially related to wastewater management can be funded with the fees. Moynihan says no.

For several years Petaluma and other cities have included storm-drain maintenance, for example, as a function that relates to wastewater management and is therefore payable with ratepayers' fees. The city's theory is that diverting storm water from the wastewater system is a benefit to the wastewater fund because diverted rainwater doesn't have to be treated at the city's sewer plant.

"It's an indirect if not a direct benefit," City Manager John Brown said.

Similar charges total between $600,000 and $900,000 a year, Brown said, and are noted in the city's budget. A recent audit of the water and wastewater fund supported the accounting.

But the city has recently acknowledged that Moynihan is at least partially correct.

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