North Carolina residents will have seven opportunities to tell state regulators what they think of proposed rate increases by Aqua North Carolina, a private water and sewer service.
The company, with 88,000 customers in the state and nearly 1 million nationwide, is asking for rate hikes averaging about 19 percent. This is the second rate increase for Aqua in the past three years.
The N.C. Utilities Commission, which will review the rate request, has scheduled six public meetings across the state in April and a public hearing in Raleigh in June.
Aqua's move has roiled homeowners who already pay the company about $100 for typical monthly usage, twice as much as residents of Raleigh, Charlotte and other municipal utility departments.
Some customers are planning public protests at the locations of the utility commission hearings.
Aqua is a publicly traded company based in Pennsylvania that serves parts of 48 North Carolina counties that don't get municipal water-sewer service.
Wall Street analysts regard Aqua's executive management as top notch and the company as one of the best-performing private water utilities in the country.
The industry is known for its strategy of investing in infrastructure and seeking rate increases to pay for those investments. One Wall Street analyst calls private water companies "rate case machines."
"Unlike most businesses, free cash flow in the water utility industry must be reinvested in the business model or else earnings growth will stagnate," wrote analyst Richard Verdi of Sturdivant & Co., in a research report. "The key here is for water utilities to invest in infrastructure which therefore will increase both revenue and earnings."