A group of Billings residents who have been fighting for almost a decade to learn from NorthWestern Energy how much they're being charged for streetlights will return to court. 

The group, which includes residents James and Elizabeth Gruba and Leo and Jeanne Barsanti, have argued that the way Northwestern Energy calculates the rates it charges its customers for streetlights is purposefully opaque and that as a result the utility has been overcharging its customers for the lights for years.

"We're asking the judge to declare that those lights have been paid for since 2008," said Russell Doty, the Grubas' and Barsantis' attorney. 

The group has argued that NorthWestern continues to charge customers for the costs associated with installing streetlights. Under state law, Doty has argued that once the lights have been paid for the utility can no longer charge customers for them. 

The problem, he said, is that NorthWestern's accounting obscures who pays for the lights, how long they've paid for them and which ones are already paid for. 

"They won't tell us the price," Doty said. 

As they've fought for numbers from the utility and done calculations looking at similar cities with similar streetlights, Doty figures Billings residents have been overcharged $61,000 a month in street light fees. Doty is asking that NorthWestern reimburse its customers that amount, going back to 2008. 

The group first complained to the state Public Service Commission in 2010 and the case ended up on appeal going first to district court and then to the state Supreme Court, where it was dismissed on procedural grounds. The court ruled some residents who were included in the complaint weren't eligible to be there. 

During the decade the case went back to the PSC and back up to the Supreme Court two more times, each time getting kicked back to PSC on procedural grounds. 

This latest round came after the PSC ruled against the group in January. Doty appealed to First District Court in Lewis and Clark County, filing a brief on Wednesday. From here, the PSC and NorthWestern will have a month to respond, after which the appeal will be heard in court.  

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