Residents from Wake County and outlying areas made an impassioned plea Monday evening to the N.C. Utilities Commission not to allow Aqua North Carolina to raise their water and sewer rates for the second time in three years.
About two dozen people listened more than two hours to public comments challenging the rate request by Aqua, the state's largest private water utility. Aqua charges more than $100 a month for a typical residential customer in North Carolina, about twice the monthly bill charged by Raleigh, Charlotte and other municipal water departments.
The Cary-based company, with 88,00 water and sewer customers in the state, is seeking to raise bills by 20.4 percent for water service and 16.4 percent for sewer service, which would come to about $17 a month extra for a typical residential customer.
"It has gotten to the point where we don't water our lawn, we don't wash our car," Juli Williams, an Aqua customer who lives in Mallard Crossing in Raleigh, told the utilities commission. "I personally go bananas if my 10-year-old wants to fill a water gun in the summer. That's a personal story of how we have to live because of these water bills."
Monday's public hearing in Raleigh is one of six scheduled this month around the state. Next week the N.C. Utilities Commission will hear from Aqua customers in Charlotte.
The Public Staff, the state's consumer advocacy agency, is in the middle of auditing Aqua's books to determine if the rate request is justified. The rate case is shaping up as one of the most controversial in years, and if Aqua and the Public Staff are unable to come to an agreement, the case would end up being litigated before the utilities commission.
In a typical rate case, the amount allowed is less than the utility's initial request, said Thomas Roberts, Aqua's president and chief operating officer, who attended Monday's hearing. Roberts told the utilities commission that the company had invested nearly $25 million in upgrading its valves, pumps, tanks, mains and also for enironmental compliance.
The final decision on Aqua's rate request is up to the utilities commission.
More than a dozen speakers urged the utilities commission to reject Aqua's request, expressing the deep economic anxieties that the case has triggered. Many said they live in blue-collar, retiree neighborhoods that have been ravaged by the recession and anemic economic recovery.
"These are the people you're going to affect if you allow this rate increase," said Lori Buchanan of the Tradewinds subdivision in Raleigh.
"They don't deserve a raise, period," Buchanan said of Aqua. "The rest of us are cutting back or pinching pennies, so why should this big company get a raise?"
Aqua wants to raise its monthly sewer rate from $63.33 to $72.11 and its water rate from $15.18 to $18.50. The company also wants to charge $5.77 per 1,000 gallons of water, up from $4.76. Typical usage is about 5,500 gallons a month.
A Public Staff lawyer told the commission that the Public Staff will likely recommend that Aqua do away with flat rates and instead charge by volume, so that a single retiree on fixed income is not paying the same amount as a large family. Such a change would create an incentive for customers to conserve water.