|Polk County Enterprise - Local News
Copyright 2014 - Polk County Publishing Company
Residents facing 400% utility hike
BY BRIAN BESCH
LIVINGSTON -- When a monthly bill doubles in amount, it could be a cause for concern. When it happens twice in six years, it is probable that many will be upset. The citizens of Texas Landing and Magnum Estates near Livingston are attempting to fight off an increase in monthly water and sewer bills that would have them pay what Texas Landing Property Owners Association President John Hillbrand calls an "injustice." "It happened about six years ago and it was supposed to be effective on the Jan. 26 bill we got a couple weeks ago, but it actually did not go into effect and we didn't know why," Hillbrand said. "We haven't had a rate increase for six years and that is kind of odd in itself, but now the sewer rates are increasing almost 400 percent and we're going to have a water bill that's higher than the electric bill. We haven't really received an explanation, (Texas Landing Utilities) just submits their application to TCEQ (Texas Commission of Environmental Quality), the regulatory authority, and we're going to have to try to request a hearing." The rate changes this time could be considered steep. The base sewer charge will change from $30.14 (including 0 gallons) to $58.45 (including 0 gallons). This includes a change in the charges from $3.18 per 1,000 gallons to $15.67 per 1,000 gallons. The base water charge will go from $32.20 (including 0 gallons) to $49.40 (including 0 gallons), which also includes a change in charges from $2.36 per 1,000 gallons to $3.31 per 1,000 gallons. Multiple attempts to reach Texas Landing Utilities Owner David Sheffield for a reason on the sharp increases were unsuccessful. However, Hillbrand said the conflict is one that goes back to 2007, when the residents' case was heard the first time. "We requested a hearing on the rate increase six years ago," Hillbrand said. "Not only did we not get much of a decrease, but we were accessed the legal fees and expenses of the utility company. It was over $200,000 in legal fees that each resident in Texas Landing is having to pay now over the next seven years. It's on our bill every month. "That is why everyone is kind of hesitant to get another hearing; we're kind of gunshy on the situation. That is what the administrative law judge with TCEQ accessed us, the utility company's legal fees and expenses. I tried to go around to get another petition signed to request another hearing, because we don't want to just accept this thing, but people are pretty hesitant to do that. We're still paying for the last one. "I get a lot of complaints about the quality of water. Hardly anybody in the subdivision will drink the water, but that is a whole different issue. Right now, we just have to deal with the rates. I got a call from Representative James White. We've contacted him about this and he asked me if we would rather have the hearing with the Public Utilities Commission rather than TCEQ. I told him I'm not familiar with the Public Utilities Commission, but we have not had a good experience with TCEQ. If we have that option, we would rather do that. "Like most utilities, TLU is a monopoly and the residents have no alternative for other water providers. Our only recourse currently is the TCEQ review. The TCEQ criteria is that the rate increase request must be 'just and reasonable.' It is pretty subjective, but our residents certainly do not feel that a 393 percent increase in sewer usage rates is reasonable." According to Hillbrand and White, the first step is an informal mediation hearing to find if an agreement can be made. When an entity files a rate case, TCEQ looks at it on a preliminary basis. If they see nothing wrong with the case, the rate increase automatically goes into effect. Ratepayers can get signatures together within 30-60 days and protest, which will start an administrative process that eventually ends in a formal hearing with an administrative law judge. Senator Robert Nichols was on the last session's Sunset Commission. In 1977, the Texas Legislature created the Sunset Advisory Commission to identify and eliminate waste, duplication, and inefficiency in government agencies. Nichols was instrumental in having the sewer and water rate setting responsibility transferred from the TCEQ to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). This transfer of rate setting responsibility will not occur until Sept. 1 of this year, but the Texas Legislature authorized the PUC to begin representing residential and small business sewer and water utility customers in September of 2013. "Because of the feedback I received from East Texans, I passed legislation last session to improve water and wastewater rate regulation," Nichols said. "As a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, I will continue to monitor the Texas Landing Utility rate case. It is my goal to ensure the ratepayers are treated fairly. " White said he did not know a reason for the large increase. He too is in favor of the Texas Landing and Magnum Estates residents receiving a new venue for the hearing. "I am not in a position to know why they are asking for what they are asking," White said. "Obviously, no one has had a 166 percent pay increase or anything like that. This past session, Senator (Robert) Nichols was very successful in getting these water rate case hearings over into the Public Utilities Commission. Many of us believe that the Public Utilities Commission is in a better position to be able to evaluate rate cases. TCEQ is primarily a regulatory agency, so we're thinking if you can get those rate cases over to PUC (Public Utilities Commission), they'll get a better vetting. "We are assisting the residents in Texas Landing and making sure they are afforded the full due process of the administrative rate case hearing. I've been to these on other occasions. What my office is doing is we've already contacted the Public Interest Council at the TCEQ and we have told the TCEQ we want the Public Interest Council to provide the optimum level of assistance and defense to the residence of Texas Landing. Also, my office is exploring an idea where this case can automatically get taken over to the PUC and that's the process that is going to go into effect this September. "This is what happens when a utility has a near monopoly and I've dealt with this situation before with Ivanhoe over in Tyler County. What the folks at Texas Landing can expect from State Representative White is that we will ensure that the full due process is afforded to them. I think if it's afforded to them, it should come out in a reasonable manner."