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Aqua's Utilities customers may see bills decrease

The final rates are still being tallied, but it appears that Aqua Utilities won't get as much as the $2.6 million in rate hikes it received last year.

Staffers with the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, are still crunching the numbers but should have an overall figure soon, said agency spokeswoman Kirsten Olsen.

Commissioners met for nearly six hours Tuesday in Tallahassee to debate the rate case that had been appealed by the Office of Public Counsel. Earlier this month, the PSC staff recommended readjusting the rates of Aqua's 85 water and sewer systems around the state to raise $2.8 million a year, $200,000 more than the original rates approved last May, according to a letter from J.R. Kelly of the Office of Public Counsel.

However, PSC staff on Tuesday said those figures were "in error."

While dollar figures were not available, some issues were clearly decided:

• Customer service quality would remain classified as "marginal" despite PSC staffers' recommendation that it be upgraded to "satisfactory." That rating will be a factor as officials calculate how much the utility can charge customers.

• Cost of living raises for employees, recommended by staff at 1.18 percent, wouldn't be covered by ratepayers. Neither would executive bonuses.

"The rates for many of these systems are high," PSC Commissioner Julie Brown said. "They are higher than I am comfortable with. They are higher than I would want to pay."

She called the situation "a perfect storm" created by a 2008 increase request, followed by a prolonged recession that caused the systems to be used less and thus triggering a request for another rate increase.

Aqua Utilities has 23,750 water and sewer customers in 16 counties. They include residents in Jasmine Lakes and Palm Terrace Gardens near Port Richey in west Pasco and the Zephyr Shores mobile home park just west of the city of Zephyrhills. Those customers pay among the highest bills in Pasco County under the rates the PSC approved last May: Jasmine Lakes customers using 7,000 gallons pay $140 a month for water and sewer; similar customers in Palm Terrace and Zephyr Shores pay $156.

Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano, who traveled by bus with about 90 residents who held signs during the meeting, said he was glad the ratepayers won concessions on some key issues but said he wished the legal fees, which were about triple the amount in the 2008 case, could have been lower.

"They just gave in to the PSC staff on that," he said.

The company had sought a $4 million rate increase to offset what it valued as $11 million worth of capital improvements. The PSC originally approved a rate increase of $2.6 million last May, but the state Office of Public Counsel, the Attorney General's Office, Pasco County and private residents all appealed. The Public Counsel argued the company has inflated expenses, poor service and that all but $312,000 of the rate hike should be eliminated.

Aqua's Utilities customers may see bills decrease 02/14/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 8:58pm]
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