When a spectacular fire broke out at his Granite stump dump in February 1991, owner James Jett rented $41,539.84 worth of heavy earthmoving equipment from Potts and Callahan Inc. in a futile effort to put it out.
Mr. Jett and the county have been duking it out in court ever since, and Mr. Jett landed the latest blow this week when he garnished the county's bank accounts to get the money to pay for the equipment he rented.
Last month, a court told Mr. Jett to pay Potts and Callahan. The same court told the county to pay Mr. Jett. The county said it wouldn't pay, so Mr. Jett filed a garnishment order on the county's funds deposited with First National Bank.
The courtroom flames are destined to outlast the stump dump fire itself, which polluted the region's air until the five-acre site on Dogwood Road was finally buried under tons of earth two months ago.
Deputy County Attorney Stanley J. Schapiro says Potts and Callahan and Mr. Jett will never get a dime from the county.
"You can't sue and collect public money," Mr. Schapiro said. He argued that contract disputes of this kind are not covered by the county's self-insurance fund, and there's no money appropriated HTC for this purpose -- although the county has said that it is the government's responsibility to extinguish fires.
"That's a new one," said Marc A. Klitenic, Potts and Callahan's attorney.
Mr. Klitenic said his client has an agreement with Mr. Jett that if the county pays the bill to Patapsco Valley Farms Inc. -- Mr. Jett's company -- he will in turn pay the Potts and Callahan bill. Mr. Klitenic said Potts and Callahan only had Mr. Jett take the action because "nobody [at the county] was returning my calls."
Court procedures now require First National Bank to reveal what county funds are deposited, after which the county will have one last shot to argue that it's immune from being forced to pay. It will then be up to Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr., who issued the judgments, to decide who is right.
Mr. Schapiro said the county could merely add the contractor's bill to the $9 million in damages it is seeking from Mr. Jett in a civil suit filed against him in October 1992.
The fire, meanwhile, continues to smolder beneath the earth, though county Fire Chief Elwood H. Banister said yesterday that underground temperatures have continued to decrease.