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Amherst wins ruling in fee dispute

A State Supreme Court judge has ruled that a consulting company working with the Town of Amherst from 2000 to 2006 to improve its Wastewater Treatment Plant is not owed nearly half a million dollars for unpaid services.

Instead, it is the town that is owed at least $154,400 for overpayments to the consulting firm once considered a potential savior for the town's underperforming and trouble-plagued sewage pelletization fertilizer program.

"The bottom line is that at this point in time, the town got a summary judgment of $154,000," said Town Attorney E. Thomas Jones.

For roughly a decade, town officials and Micro-Link officer Thomas Watkins have disputed the amount of money the town owed the consultant for its services.

In 2005, the State Comptroller's Office stated that the town overpaid Micro-Link by roughly $600,000, and in 2006, the Town Board refused to pay Micro-Link any outstanding claims. The following year, Micro-Link launched a suit against the town, followed by town countersuits.

"Town doesn't owe Micro-Link any more money," Jones said of Judge John A. Michalek's recent decision. "That's the biggest news."

Micro-Link is still free to appeal the decision, and other outstanding issues linger that could be brought to trial. If a trial proceeds, lawyers for the town say it's possible the town might be able to recover even more money from Micro-Link.

The Micro-Link lawsuit has been rattling around for five years and is one of more than a half-dozen lawsuits the town has been involved with related to the sewage treatment plant's pelletizer program.

Some of the other cases, includings suits from fired employees and suits against equipment vendors, have been settled or decided after long, painful and costly court proceedings.

The case involving Micro-Link was first heard by State Supreme Court Justice John M. Curran and involved statute of limitations and filing deadline issues, Jones said. Curran ruled in 2008 that some of the claims filed by Micro-Link were ineligible for town payment. His decision was overturned on appeal in 2010.

This time around, the Micro-Link case was heard by Michalek. It also was the first case based on the merits of the claims by both sides, instead of technical deadline issues, Jones said. Both Micro-Link and the Town of Amherst sought a summary judgment -- a prompt decision from the judge without trial.

Michalek denied Micro-Link's request for summary judgment and payment of $493,490 from the town and instead granted the town its counterclaim request for $154,396, according to the court papers outlining the judge's decision last week.

Both sides will confer with a judge next month to determine whether any settlements, appeals or other additional legal proceedings may be desired by either side.

"We feel pretty good about this decision," Jones said. "We'll see what happens now."