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PSC should resolve to clear up utility dispute

The holiday message from the Florida Public Service Commission staff to Aloha Utilities and its customers is a mixed bag that should be clarified by state regulators.

Six months ago, the PSC, in a pre-July 4 ruling, said it would begin legal considerations for removing disgruntled customers from Aloha's franchise area in southwest Pasco if longstanding water quality problems are not solved. Customers cheered their first step toward independence.

However, just before Christmas, the PSC staff recommended those proceedings be halted because of legal technicalities. In essence, the petition to disband the franchise cannot come from customers, it must be PSC initiated and requires the state to prove the utility is delivering substandard water.

Here's a suggestion: As it enters the New Year, the PSC should resolve to conclude this interminable dispute.

Aloha has indicated a willingness to go to mediation with its customers. It's a start. The utility should follow up, however, with a more significant show of good faith and refund money owed to customers. In early December the company filed its intentions to appeal an October PSC-ordered refund of $282,000 stemming from a 2002 rate case in which the utility collected higher rates on an interim basis. It shouldn't take a court order to give back money that doesn't belong to you.

Fixing the customers' wallets is realively simple. Fixing water quality complaints is not.

A state hired consultant reported the water delivered by the utility meets minimum quality standards. Customers' long-standing complaints about dark, foul-smelling water coming from their taps is blamed on a chemical reaction with copper piping inside the homes. The study suggested additional treatment methods to reduce the instances of corroded pipes, discolored water and rotten egg smells. The utility's preferred treatment, hydrogen peroxide oxidation, carries a $4.5-million price tag and a projected 44 percent rate hike request.

The cost and the treatment's unproven record in Florida helped spur 1,500 customers in Wyndtree, Chelsea Place and other homes in the Seven Springs area to petition the PSC to be removed from Aloha's franchise area and be served by Pasco County Utilities.

PSC staff recommended the petition be terminated because of unmet statutory requirements tied to license renovation. However, a second memorandum from the PSC staff said there is probable cause Aloha violated its duty to operate the utility system in the public's interest.

In other words, the PSC staff gave commissioners multiple options. Dropping the petition and doing nothing is a disserve to the public. It also contradicts the PSC's reasoning in July to consider deleting part of the utility's territory even as Aloha faced a February deadline for developing a plan to answer customer complaints.

The PSC is scheduled to meet Tuesday to consider the Aloha case. Commissioners should remember half of the utility's customers responded to a recent survey and 80 percent of those favored independence from the private utility. Only 2 percent of those responding said they have no problem with Aloha's service.

Customers overwhelmingly demand action. After 10 years, who can blame them?

If a private utility cannot properly serve its customer base, then it is appropriate to turn the job over to a public entity. If mediation determines a cheaper and more timely solution is available _ replumbing affected houses with PVC piping, for instance _ then the state and utility should help homeowners with the financing.

Either way, a solution should be expedited. It is time to reward customer patience.