Customers of Aqua North Carolina, the states biggest non-municipal water utility, will have a final opportunity on Monday to sound off on the water companys third rate increase proposed in the past six years.
Aquas water-sewer bills are already about twice as high as a typical city system in North Carolina, including those in Raleigh, Cary and Charlotte. And last year the company alarmed its customers by proposing a 19.15 percent rate increase. Nearly 250 Aqua customers wrote objections to the N.C. Utilities Commission against another rate hike from the publicly-traded company thats admired on Wall Street as a rate-case machine.
When quality and service are compared to Raleigh and to Cary systems, it is obvious that Aquas rates should be much lower, wrote Raleigh resident Thomas Stevenson, a retired UNC-Charlotte marketing professor. We request that the [N.C. Utilities Commission] scale back rates to more closely approximate those in nearby communities.
On Monday, Aqua will present to the Utilities Commission a reduced rate request that would raise rates by an average of 5.2 percent, as part of an agreement with the states consumer protection agency in utility rate matters. The Public Staff, as the agency is called, spent months auditing Aquas books and operations as part of its decision to settle with Aqua rather than litigate the matter before the Utilities Commission.
The [settlement] is the product of extensive give-and-take negotiations between the Public Staff and Aqua, Public Staff accounting division director Katherine Fernald said in a public filing. The Public Staff believes that the [settlement] represents a just and reasonable resolution of the issues that it covers.
While the Public Staffs imprimatur carries considerable weight before the Utilities Commission, the agencys settlement with Aqua is not supported by two other perennial Aqua critics the N.C. Attorney General, and Dr. Stan Coleman, a 52-year-old child psychiatrist (and medical director of Catawba Mental Health Center) who researches Aqua financial records on his own time.
Both opponents will attempt to poke holes in the rate settlement during Mondays hearing in hopes of convincing the Utilities Commission to slash the rate request further.
Most of Aquas 90,000-some customers are water users, including more than 400 subdivisions in Wake County. Under the agreement with the Public Staff, their monthly rates would go up by 7 percent or $3.05 a month on average. Aquas 15,010 sewer customers would see a slight rate increase of 0.22 percent, or 14 cents a month.
The Public Staffs settlement follows more than a half-dozen field inspections of Aqua facilities and eight days of on-site auditing at Aquas North Carolina headquarters in Cary and corporate headquarters in Bryn Mawr, Penn.
Aquas original rate increase last year sought to boost annual revenue by nearly $8.6 million. This months settlement with the Public Staff cuts the annual revenue increase to nearly $2.5 million. A big chunk of the reduction $2.7 million results from the N.C. legislatures lowering of corporate income taxes and eliminating the gross receipts tax.
The Public Staff chipped away at dozens of other corporate expenses, big and small, including questionable billings the Public Staff flagged as errors or oversights. For example, the agency disallowed $3,804 in legal fees for which Aqua couldnt provide an invoice, and also excluded $641 in lobbying expenses.