UPDATE: Demonstrators gather in Charleston to protest proposed water rate hike

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UPDATE 5/17/16 @ 7:30 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – About a dozen demonstrators gathered in Charleston Tuesday to voice frustration with a proposed rate hike by West Virginia American Water.

"My kids deserve safe water and so do my grandkids!"

"We've had eight rate hikes since the year 2000!"

"We pay the third highest rate for water in the United States!"

They shouted outside the Kanawha County Commission in an effort to ask county and city leaders for their continued support.

Back in February, the Public Service Commission of West Virginia approved a 15 percent increase to water rates for customers, generating an additional $18.2 million annually for the company.

Just two months later, the company filed an application with the PSC requesting another increase. The funds from the new surcharge would go toward the company's Infrastructure Replacement Program (IRP) to replace aging infrastructure. WVAW is seeking more than $32 million in funding.

If approved, the charge would be calculated as a percentage of the total monthly bill, representing an increase of 1.9 percent or 89 cents per month for the typical residential customer using 3,204 gallons.

"About two months later and they ask for another one," said Paul Dalzell with Advocates for a Safe Water System. "It's just outrageous."

Dalzell organized the demonstration Tuesday. He said their group was speaking on behalf of many frustrated WVAW customers.

"When we talk to people around the area, over and over again, we get the rates are too high and we don't trust the water," Dalzell said.

Dalzell says the point of the demonstration was to ask the Kanawha County Commission to continue to support their fight against the rate hikes. The customers held a banner that announced their plans to look into a public water system. Dalzell said they want the Kanawha County Commission to help fund a feasibility study to see if a public system would be possible. He says putting the water system in the hands of the public has worked in other areas across the country.

"We're happy to have their help and we need their help," Dalzell said. "We are here to ask the Kanawha County Commission for their leadership to help with a public water system. It would mean lower rates. All of the cases, actually all of the cases have lowered the rates, improved the quality of the water and the service. So this is, it's pretty well a no-brainer."

While calling on county and city leaders Tuesday, Dalzell recognized that many officials have already supported their efforts.

"Our commission has repeatedly told the PSC that we think these rates are excessive," said Kanawha County Commissioner Dave Hardy. "The public service commission needs to reign in the water company real quickly."

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones has said the most recent request by WVAW "borders on offensive."

WVAW spokeswoman Laura Jordan says says aging infrastructure is a national problem that needs to be addressed.

"The advantage of an infrastructure replacement program is that it allows us to accelerate our rate of infrastructure replacement," said Jordan. "I don't think anyone could argue that we don't need more investment in our infrastructure."

Jordan says the previous rate increase was to meet current levels of investment while this new surcharge going forward would allow the company to recover investments within the year that they are made. She says it is a different method than the PSC has historically treated rate-making. Jordan says companies typically have to make the investments first and then try to recover them several years down the road.

"This is a way for them to be pre-approved and covered in the same year in which they're being made," Jordan said. "The rates that went into effect in February covered $150 million worth of investments that the company made over the past four years. This new infrastructure replacement program seeks to recover investments that are being made currently -- anything after February in 2016 plus the investments that are planned for 2017 and after that time it would be on an annual basis."

Dalzell says the company will profit off of money they haven't even spent yet which he calls "outrageous."

"They keep asking this area, which is not a wealthy area, for more and more money," Dalzell said. "We think the public could do a better job. Put the water in the hands of the public."

While Jordan says the investment in infrastructure is necessary, she says the company knows that many families struggle to pay bills. She says the company tries to be transparent about potential changes to bills for that reason.

"I think the more that we can do a better job educating customers, notifying them of the improvements we're making in their neighborhood, people typically won't mind paying a few more cents on their utility bills. At the same time, we understand that customers do sometimes struggle to pay monthly bills even though water is typically one of the lowest utility bills that you pay every month. And we have certain customer assistance programs in place for customers who are struggling to pay their bills."

Jordan says the PSC process is public and the company is trying to be open about the process. She says there is also more information, including a breakdown of where the customer's money is going, on their website: www.westvirginiaamwater.com.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – West Virginia American Water is seeking more than $32 million in funding to help replace aging infrastructure, according to a news release from the company.

The company on Friday filed an application with the state Public Service Commission (PSC) requesting the funds in conjunction with the Infrastructure Replacement Program (IRP).

The company says it seeks cost recovery on $32.5 million of its planned $107 million of capital investments in 2016 and 2017 through the IRP, with a separate charge on customers’ bills effective Jan. 1, 2017.

If approved, the charge would be calculated as a percentage of the total monthly bill, representing an increase of 1.9 percent or 89 cents per month for the typical residential customer using 3,204 gallons.

The IRP application is modeled after a statute enacted by the West Virginia Legislature in 2015, which authorized the PSC to approve expedited cost recovery of natural gas utility infrastructure projects deemed just, reasonable and in the public interest.

According to the company, the investment would allow West Virginia American Water to accelerate its water main replacement program. It says the planned upgrades will replace more than 22 miles of water main this year, along with hydrants, valves, manholes, services and other qualifying projects.

The PSC will conduct a review of West Virginia American Water’s IRP application, and the company has requested that an order be issued within a six-month period. If approved, the company anticipates filing its annual IRP plan by July 1 of each year.

More information is available by going to: www.westvirginiaamwater.com.

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