Waiting for the hearing to start in the courtroom in the Hickman County Courthouse.
Kentucky Public Service Commission Chairman David Armstrong told the fifty four people attending the public hearing on Wednesday evening that he is a Murray State grad and coming to Clinton is “like coming home.” Armstrong, one of three members of the Public Service Commission brought staff and recorders to hear what local residents had to say about Water Services of Kentucky Inc.’s request for a 22% rate increase.
Commissioner Armstrong urged those who wished to comment to focus on whether an increase is “fair, just, or reasonable - because that is the standard that we will be looking for.”
Bruce Haas, regional director of operations for the Midwest Region of Utilities Inc. Haas has worked for Utilities Incorporated, the parent company of Water Services of Kentucky for over thirty two years.
Haas, in defending his employer, said that the increases are to cover “current operating expenses, which include, but are not limited to, chemicals, power, property taxes, income taxes, operator salaries. Some of these costs have increased since the last time we had a rate increase and some costs we have no control over.”
The rate increases cover money we’ve already spent and to comply with state and federal regulations. The company contends that the rate increase of 31% granted by the Public Service Commission in 2009 does not reflect the true cost of operating the system. Haas said that increase was based on costs of three years ago. The increase did not cover gas prices, increases in health insurance coverage, and increased costs of utilities.
Haas said that two issues had come up that he wanted to address. The new metering system that was switched out in March caused confusion in billing. The total dollar amounts on the bills “were correct, but the way we switched them out, we had part of the time, customers had old and new meter readings. Unfortunately, one line item didn’t reflect a whole month’s usage. He said it was a one time error that has been corrected.
The other issues regarded swimming pool fill ups. Because sewer rates are calculated by water usage, bills after a pool fill up would have higher sewer bills, even though the water didn’t go into the sewer system. When it came to the company’s attention, he said, they made sure that if the customer filled a pool, they would not get billed for the sewer usage.
Judge Greg Pruitt spoke first opposing the rate increase. Judge Pruitt said that at least a portion of the cost of new meters that Mr. Haas mentioned were paid for with a state grant. That money did not come out of the water company. Judge Pruitt complimented the local water company staff, Mike Pickard and John Turner, for their assistance.
The water increase will affect all of Hickman County, not just city residents. Judge Pruitt said that Hickman County government is the largest user of water in Clinton. If there is an increase, all taxpayers will feel it.
Jailer Chad Frizzell echoed Judge Pruitt’s statement. Frizzell predicted that if the rate increase is approved, the cost of the Hickman County Jail to taxpayers will go up “from five to seven thousand dollars.”
Joann Alexander of West Kentucky Allied Services described the efforts of her agency to assist low income families with utilities. She relies on the Mission House and local churches for money.
“We are a small community and have limited resources. Those on disability and fixed incomes whose total check for a month is $694 have to pay rent, gas, food and utilities. It doesn’t stretch very far.”
Justine Webb read out the amounts due on her water bills over the past year. Webb said she doesn’t entertain or have overnight guests, but her bill jumped one month to over $100. When she questioned the company, she was told that she must have a leak. The plumber she called could find nothing wrong. It’s not the first time that she’s had trouble with her water bill. She replaced several appliances before the last rate increase that were using too much water.
Local businessman Gordon Samples said that there are things the government must do for him which he cannot do himself – like protect him from unreasonable rate increases. He also understands that companies must make a profit to stay in business. In response to Mr. Haas, Samples said that he cannot afford health insurance for himself or his sixteen employees.
City Councilman Ivan Potter said there are problems with the software the company uses. Potter’s research found instances of complaints about the software. There have been allegations that the company software is vulnerable to being hacked. Potter also said that doing away with face to face contact with customer service representatives has created a “culture of fear among residents.” He said that Mike Pickard is supposed to maintain the system, not solve billing issues. That is being done by employees in other states.
Terry English, who pastors a local church, lives in Tennessee and owns rental property in Clinton. English said that in comparison, Clinton’s water rates are much higher than his Tennessee town that owns the water company. He said the water system was antiquated when it was purchased. He would like to see Clinton purchase the water company.
Councilman Mickey Beck said that he was opposed to the increase. Beck, who lost a leg to an illness, and walks with a cane, said he doesn’t have health insurance. He wondered why he should pay for the water company’s.
Councilwoman Yvette Thomas also went on record opposing the increase. She said her parents who are in their eighties both have higher water bills than her. Senior citizens will struggle with an increase.
The last speaker, Pastor James Bolen of Moore’s Chapel A.M.E. Church, shared in the account of receiving a $1,018 water bill in December 2009. According to the bill, the church used 89,000 gallons of water in November. The church has five members. They paid the bill, but they continue to believe it is in error.
Bolen said, “You can't know how devastating it can be- a $1,018 bill. It wears. It hurts when you know no leak is to be found.”
Pastor Bolen said that about a month ago, the church got a $50 water bill-the biggest bill the church has gotten since the December 2009 bill. He called the water company and was told that he must have a problem. In response, the pastor informed the Water Services of Kentucky’s Florida customer service representative that he didn’t have a problem.
“I shut the water off every Sunday after service.” Audience members broke into delighted laughter and applause as Bolen left the microphone.
Senator Rand Paul’s representative, Christina Peterson, was in attendance, taking notes to share with the Senator’s office about the situation in Clinton.
The Kentucky Public Service Commission will hold a hearing on Thursday, July 14th at 10:00 a.m. eastern time at their Frankfort office on Sower Drive. The public is invited to attend. No public comments will be taken at the hearing. The hearing will be streamed live on the agency website.
Customers can continue to send comments to the PSC at Kentucky Public Service Commission, 211 Sower Drive, Frankfort Kentucky 40601, referring to Case No. 2010-00476.