Aloha Utilities had been asking since last August to get $1-million more a year, a 57 percent increase in revenue that would have come from the pockets of its Seven Springs area customers.
But if the Public Service Commission staff gets their way, Aloha will get $6,648.
The bottom line for customers? They get money back.
The PSC staff on Thursday released their recommendation to the commission, which will make a final vote on Aloha's rate case on April 2.
Among the recommendations were giving Aloha a .34 percent increase in its earnings, while taking away a 15 percent temporary rate increase Aloha was given while its $1-million request was considered.
Although the PSC staff's recommendation isn't final, it does carry weight. The PSC members are appointed by the governor and generally go along with staff recommendations, which come after a lengthy process filled with hearings and hundreds of pages of documents.
Aloha President Steve Watford and the company's attorney, F. Marshall Deterding, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But throughout the 139-page recommendation, Aloha denies the PSC staff's claims.
Chief among them is the PSC staff declaring Aloha's water quality as "unsatisfactory." Although they agreed the utility met state and federal minimum standards for water quality, staff cited persistent problems. Customers of the utility have complained for years about water coming out of their taps that was as black as a swamp.
At a hearing in January, customers again came out, complaining of black water. The PSC staff said Aloha hasn't done enough to curb those problems, and therefore was providing poor service.
"Also, to reflect the poor management of this utility, the salaries of the President and Vice President should be reduced by 50 percent," the recommendation reads.
Aloha, in the staff's report, fired back that "there is no factual basis in the record to support a finding of poor quality of service, much less a legal basis for denying rate relief due to poor quality of service."
In the recommendations, the staff said Aloha should improve how it filters water, give credits to customers who have problems that take too long to fix, clarify its bill format and create a citizens advisory committee.
But creating that committee could prove troublesome.
At the January hearing, Dr. Abraham Kurien, a retired physician living in the Aloha service area, said he'd be happy to start a committee. Since then, Kurien was told the utility wouldn't start a committee if the black water problem was on the agenda. Kurien wrote Watford saying it would be useless to start a committee without talking about black water, and the committee idea has since stalled.
"This is great," state Rep. Mike Fasano said Thursday. Fasano, a frequent combatant with Aloha, said he hoped the PSC agrees with the staff recommendation, just the same as the commission had when the staff recommended rate increases for Aloha and other utilities.
"I think finally, the people have won one," said Fasano, a Republican from Port Richey.
_ Staff writer Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waitesptimes.com
The PSC's recommendation in case 010503-WU can be found at http://www.psc.state.fl.us/ by following the "Dockets and Filings" link, then to the "dockets" link.