June 23--JEFFERSON -- Aqua Ohio has proposed its largest water rate increase since 2012 -- a 9.2 percent hike that could cost its residential customers an extra about $5 per month on average.
The increase, proposed late last month, is designed to recoup some of the about $52 million in infrastructure investments from the last two years, according to Aqua. The statewide increase is estimated to bring in an average of $7.4 million annually.
Ashtabula County Commissioners Tuesday officially opposed the increase and are urging municipalities to reach out to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which is currently reviewing the proposal. Not only is the request "unreasonable," but most of the company's new revenues likely won't stay in the county, they said.
Nick Sanford, Ashtabula County Department of Environmental Services director, calculated the county water system will be paying 78 percent more than it did in 2010 for its bulk water, if the proposed increase is approved.
Rates have increased about 23 percent since 2012, when Aqua bought the Ohio American water filtration plant in Ashtabula, and its predecessor made substantial hikes the two years prior, Sanford said.
Over the years, those increases were passed onto the about 12,000 customers of the county's water system, and the cities of Geneva and Rock Creek, which all buy in bulk from the Ashtabula plant, he said.
Those who pay Aqua Ohio directly for water service will also see their bills rise. The company also has residential customers in Ashtabula, Geneva, Geneva-on-the-Lake, North Kingsville and Rock Creek, as well as the townships of Ashtabula, Austinburg, Geneva, Harpersfield, Jefferson, Kingsville, Plymouth, Rome, Saybrook and Sheffield.
Though Sanford told the Star Beacon there are currently no plans to approach commissioners with a county water system increase, ACDES will "need to make a move in some direction" once the commission rules on the request.
"Generally, (we) try to stay away from rate increases because that's all this department has been doing over the years is chasing rate hikes by Aqua," he said, adding that when Aqua bought the Ashtabula plant in 2012, its equipment had been "let go" and required substantial rehabilitation.
"Our position has been we're not really seeing the benefits of the entire amount," he said.
Aqua spokesman Jeff LaRue said Aqua has financed several major projects in the county since the last rate increase in 2014.
That work includes $1.1 million for a new distribution garage in the Ashtabula Industrial Park, intended to centralize operations for the service territory; more than $1.2 million in miscellaneous plant upgrades and hydrant, valve and main replacements; and $725,000 for painting and rehabilitation at the State Route 84 storage tank.
This year, LaRue said, projects include: Ashtabula water line work along Shepard Road, Dunbar Avenue and West 59th Street, totaling about $350,000; a high service line leaving the Ashtabula plant south toward Walnut Boulevard, totaling about $120,000, which is finished; and more valve and hydrant replacements throughout the area, totaling about $100,000.
Aqua began assessing an about 3 percent system improvement charge in 2013; increased average rates by 6.4 percent in 2014; and began assessing another 4.25 percent system improvement charge last year.
"I guess the thing that really bothers me about it is that the money doesn't stay here," said county Commissioner Dan Claypool. "(Revenues) go throughout the system. It's hard on our customers, it's hard economically, as far as economic development and trying to lure business here -- it just makes it tough for everybody."
But LaRue said the company's more than 150,000 connections in the state mean its customers often benefit from the operation's scale, even if it's not always taking more than its giving to the Aqua network.
"I believe that in the past several years -- with the improvements that I've mentioned -- Ashtabula County has been a net winner," he said.
Sanford said the PUCO leans toward reducing rate increases, instead of denying them. The commission has nine months to rule.
"They will be making some filings with us to show their costs, then the PUCO staff will do an investigation to determine if and how much rates should be increased," Matt Schilling, a PUCO spokesman, told the Canal Winchester Times out of central Ohio earlier this month.
"Generally speaking, a utility is entitled by law to recover its costs of providing service and make a reasonable profit," he said. "We will have hearings at the PUCO offices. They will have to provide testimony, where the utility company will have to get up and provide proof to justify any rate increase, just like a courtroom. Also, the PUCO will host public hearings."
The Ohio Consumers' Counsel filed a motion to intervene on behalf of all Aqua residential customers on June 1.
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