Aqua Utilities Inc. charges high-end prices for low-grade service and if it wasn't a monopoly, the private company would be losing its water and sewer customers. That is the sentiment of some of the 1,000 pages of customer letters submitted in a rate case that is expected to be decided next week by the Florida Public Service Commission in Tallahassee.
Unfortunately, the PSC staff recommended the utility be granted a $2.8 million rate increase. That is $200,000, or 7.7 percent higher, than what the commission originally approved.
It's an absurd recommendation, largely because it says the utility provides adequate service. Tell that to the customers. Some of them testified in October at a PSC hearing in west Pasco that they could not afford the exorbitant cost of Aqua's water and sewer bills.
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. Under the staff recommendation, water rates in Jasmine Lakes will go up 44 percent, and sewer rates will increase more than 12 percent in all three Pasco communities.
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, but the state Office of Public Counsel, the Attorney General's Office, Pasco County and private residents all appealed. The Florida Public Counsel argued the company has inflated expenses, poor service and that all but $312,000 of the rate hike should be eliminated. Instead, the PSC staff said the rate increase should bump even higher, to $2.8 million. Since when do utility rate cases include a tip?
The staff might have a tin ear, but members of the Public Service Commission should listen more intently to the evidence submitted during the hearings, including testimony from low- and moderate-income families who said they will be forced to choose between obtaining health care or paying the water bills.
Aqua Utilities should be allowed to receive a reasonable return on its investment. But, the PSC should not permit a private monopoly to extract double-digit rate increases for basic necessities like running water and sewer service from people of modest means.