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Lawsuit: Georgia city illegally restricts utilities access

ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia city’s policies illegally restrict access to utility services, and those policies disproportionately affect black and Latino residents, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.

The lawsuit against LaGrange says the city, which is the only provider of basic utilities, threatens to cut off utilities if residents don’t pay outstanding municipal court fines. Another policy denies utility services to people who can’t provide a Social Security number and a photo ID issued by the state or federal government, the suit says.

The policies violate the federal Fair Housing Act — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin — because they disproportionately affect black and Latino residents, the lawsuit says. They also violate the obligation not to discriminate when providing utilities and violate state law, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of organizations, including the Georgia NAACP, as well as individual residents. It asks a judge to permanently block the policies and to award damages to the individuals.

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said in an email Thursday that he hasn’t had a chance to review the lawsuit and discuss it with the city council.

“We will make an appropriate response to the lawsuit after such review,” Thornton wrote.

LaGrange is about 70 miles southwest of Atlanta, near the state line with Alabama. The city’s website pitches it as a “growing progressive city just south of the busiest airport in the world.” It touts a low cost of living and high quality of life that has helped the city and surrounding Troup County attract two dozen international businesses.

The city doesn’t collect property tax and, therefore, uses other streams of income, including court fees and utility payments, to beef up its revenue, said Justin Cox, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center who filed the complaint.

“It’s extremely regressive,” Cox said in a phone interview. “The city balances its budget on the backs of poor people who are overwhelmingly racial minorities.”

The city code says anyone applying for utility service who owes any debt to the city, including court judgments and fines, must pay that debt before getting utility service, the lawsuit says. The city code also says customers who owe any kind of debt to the city may have their utility service disconnected without prior notice if they fail to pay the debts.

“No provision of Georgia law authorizes municipalities or utility providers to collect unpaid court debt by withholding or terminating utility services, or by threatening to do either,” the lawsuit says. “In fact, common law duties owed by utility providers such as the City prohibit this practice.”

Black people make up 49 percent of the city’s residents but represented about 90 percent of utility customers threatened with disconnection from January 2015 through September 2016 because of court debt added to their utility accounts, the lawsuit says.

Cox said they used city data obtained through open records requests to identify people affected.

“It’s remarkable how common it is in the African-American neighborhoods in LaGrange, and if you look at a map of where the city is threatening to cut off utilities, it’s where the African-American folks live in LaGrange,” Cox said. “It’s stark, and the city has been aware of it for quite some time.”

The second policy targeted by the lawsuit says applicants must be able to provide a Social Security number and a state or federal photo ID. Many immigrants — both legally and illegally present and an overwhelming majority of whom are Latino — cannot meet that requirement and thus can’t get utility service, the lawsuit says.

The policy isn’t simply meant to verify the identity and credit of its account holders because it also refuses to let people who do meet the requirements open accounts on behalf of others, the lawsuit says. LaGrange could follow other utilities providers in the state that accept IRS-issued Individual Tax Identification Numbers and photo IDs issued by foreign governments, the lawsuit.

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