The seven people suing Billings over water, waste and sewer franchise fees is now a group of roughly 35,000. 

A ruling on Wednesday by Cascade County District Judge Gregory Pinski allowed the suit in Yellowstone County District Court to move forward as a class action lawsuit, which brings in every city resident who paid a franchise fee on their water, wastewater or solid waste disposal bill, a group of almost 35,000 people.

"Billings ratepayers are now one step closer to recovering at least some of the money that the City Council had illegally taken from them for years," said Matthew Monforton, one of the two attorneys representing the ratepayers.

The city has argued that the plaintiffs' complaint is moot as Billings no longer collects franchise fees. It has also argued that at least some of the plaintiffs — Terry Houser, Terry Odegard, Roger Webb, Mae Woo, Kathryn Zurbuchen and Tom Zurbuchen — failed to appear or object to franchise fees during public hearings held on proposed increases to water and waste water rates dating back to July 2010.

Billings started charging franchise fees in 1992; 4 percent for water and wastewater services, and 5 percent for solid waste disposal services. The city ended the practice last summer. 

Those percentage points translated to monthly amounts that were relatively low; that was one of the reasons Judge Pinski ruled to make the lawsuit a class action.

"The amount in controversy favors class certification," he wrote. "Few individuals would file a claim for the few dollars a month they were charged in franchise fees." 

The plaintiffs argue that the franchise fee was essentially an illegal tax collected by the city and that by charging it, the city violated their rights.

The court's action on Wednesday means the lawsuit will move forward and, depending on the final ruling, could mean the city will be responsible for compensating nearly 35,000 residents who have been charged franchise fees. 

"A court's certification of a class is one of the most important steps in a successful class action, so this is a big win for Billings ratepayers," Monforton said.

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