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Community expresses concern about utility rate increases

Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 11:31 PM EDT
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SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Many Kanawha County residents are concerned their water and power bills could be going up substantially once again next year.

West Virginia American Water has requested to raise rates 26 percent, claiming it’s needed due to recent investment in system upgrades and a decrease in customers due to a declining population. Appalachian Power wants to add a 3.6 percent surcharge to power bills to cover the cost of infrastructure improvements, such as storm damage recovery and prevention.

These utility companies already have some of the highest rates in the nation, as WSAZ discovered in its investigation The High cost of H2O.

“I know the water company has a good product,” Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said. “I know they need a lot of maintenance. No one disputes that, but how much can you afford to pay, how much longer will this go on? We’re running businesses, we’re running people out of West Virginia because there is no end to the raising of our water bills and our electric bills.”

Carper is now working with Kanawha County legislators to find a way to prevent the rate increases. He is concerned the Public Service Commission, which rules on utility rate increases, will grant a smaller increase and the companies will file for another rate hike to gain even more money in the near future. The Kanawha County Commission has filed an injunction against the American Water increase, in addition to submitting a letter in opposition to the higher rates.

“I am so glad the Legislature is at least beginning to take a look at this,” Carper said about a public hearing that was held Wednesday night in South Charleston to begin the listening process. “Why doesn’t the Legislature do some oversight? The Legislature writes the laws in this state. Do we really need a public utility company company to come in, get a rate increase, and before they get out the door, file for another one? That’s what’s going on.”

The hearing allowed the public to voice their concerns and suggest ways to solve the problem. Some people talked about how the high cost of living is pushing even more people to move out of the state, while others talked about problems getting a long-term solution to leaking pipes or frequently downed wires.

“There needs to be a limit on how often they are asking for (an increase),” said Terry Burns, who’s from Campbell’s Creek. “Look at where they are spending the money, and are they just wasting it to get a rate increase? It’s easy for the power company to just go and say, ‘hey, why don’t we just go and replace 10,000 power poles and we can get more money for it.’ That shouldn’t happen.”

Lawmakers heard the hardship people face having to pay the higher utility bills, including deciding whether to pay a bill or buy needed medicine. Del. Kayla Young (D-Kanawha) moderated the hearing and said the House and Senate have some oversight powers that can help people by keeping bills lower. She said people are struggling coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crisis has already given the state large amounts of money to the state that can be used on infrastructure improvements. Young hopes they can slow this rate increase process down even more and protect people until more input can be gathered.

“Overall, I think people are just worried,” Young said about what she’s heard about the rate increase. “Their bills just keep going up, and (income) doesn’t rise equally. I think people are concerned about a 26 percent increase, especially people on a fixed income.”

A representative from West Virginia American Water was at the hearing to get feedback about the proposal and push for the increase that’s designed to help the company pay for $252 million in infrastructure improvements. Spokesperson Laura Martin said the company is working to address the concerns but said higher rates are needed to provide safe and reliable water and wastewater service. For people that are unable to pay their water bills, Martin said the company has a number of programs to lower costs.

The PSC has not yet scheduled a timeline to rule on the rate increase proposals, giving people more time to submit comments online or attend another public hearing.

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