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Community members feel ‘gouged’ by water rate increase

By Staff | Dec 2, 2010

RANSON – The first day of a scheduled two-day public hearing regarding water rates for Jefferson County Utilities Inc. ratepayers began Wednesday morning with members of the public speaking against a proposed rate increase, and ended Wednesday evening during a cross-examination of JUI owner Lee Snyder.

The public hearings were called, in part, because a number of JUI customers, as well as the Jefferson County Commission, filed for the intervenor status with the West Virginia Public Service Commission to protest JUI’s most recent rate increase request, which was in excess of a 70 percent increase to current water rates.

Snyder, who also owns Snyder Environmental Services, has said that the rate increases are needed because JUI, a privately owned company, has continued to lose money over the past several years.

JUI’s water rate is $63.60 per 4,000 gallons of water a month, which makes more than 2,000 JUI customers pay the third-highest rate for water in West Virginia, according to a PSC Sewer Utility Cost Ranking from Nov. 26.

The public hearing is being presided over by Sunya Anderson, an administrative law judge with the PSC, and Ron Robertson is the PSC staff attorney assigned to the case.

Chris Cody, a representative of Citizens for Fair Water and a Jefferson County resident, spoke to Anderson about his water rates during the opening public comment portion of Wednesday’s hearing.

Since moving to Jefferson County three years ago, Cody said his water rates have more than doubled for the same amount of consumption and that the water rates for JUI customers are much more than water rates from around the county.

“Over a 70 percent increase on the back of an increase that basically doubled everybody’s water rates less than a year ago is just, quite frankly, it’s absurd,” Cody said. “Hopefully you will find … that maybe we should be decreasing the rates back to where they are and put them back in line with the U.S. average.”

Regina Fite, who has lived in Jefferson County since 1999, said that she pays more for water now than when she lived in Maryland and had her four sons living in the house with her and her husband.

“When I lived in Maryland and paid $22 a month for water, I had four teenage boys living with me. Here, there’s just two of us,” Fite said. “I think we have been gouged from the very beginning. All of these new communities that grew up here very quickly were essentially taken advantage of.”

Another issue with the water from JUI, Fite said, was that customers were not notified that there was cryptosporidium, a diarrheal disease, in the water until a year after it had supposedly been found.

“Cryptosporidium is one of those things that’s easily detectable and that there’s zero tolerance for,” Fite said. “It makes me wonder what else is in my water that I’m paying this Cadillac price for that I don’t know about and won’t know about until after I’ve imbibed it for a year.”

Following the public remarks at the hearing, Snyder said there was a lot of misinformation presented by those who spoke, including the talk having to do with the cryptosporidium.

“We never had any cryptosporidium contamination anywhere, ever,” Snyder said. He added that the cryptosporidium issue was probably fueled by the rumor mill.

“Our only thing that we’ve missed, in the last two years I think, was one nitrate test on one system,” Snyder said. “And that’s out of hundreds of tests that we take.”

The evidentiary portion of Wednesday’s hearing, which lasted until 5:30 p.m., saw testimonies from SES employees and a certified public accountant on behalf of JUI.

Evidence and witnesses presented by JUI’s attorney, Dan McDonald, were intended to demonstrate why JUI “differs with the (PSC) staff’s report in the case, why we filed the case and why we support the filing,” Snyder said.

“JUI’s asked for a rate increase, so they’ve got to put on evidence and basically prove that they need a rate increase and it’s justifiable,” said Jefferson County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney James Casimiro, who is representing the County Commission in the case. “Myself and (attorney) Sam (Hanna), who represents the citizens, will put on our own witnesses and cross-examine his and argue whether or not the rate increase is justified.”

Snyder was the last witness McDonald called Wednesday, and during his testimony Snyder defended his positions on why rate increases are needed, including JUI’s financial debt to SES. Snyder also addressed accusations that, because he owns both companies, he has reallocated money from JUI to SES and his other companies, which has helped cause JUI’s financial losses.

When asked if JUI is “dragging down” SES, Snyder replied that it absolutely is.

“That’s another part of my commitment to seek this rate increase,” Snyder said. “It’s not fun. I’ve been demonized by so many people, unfortunately most of the customers do not understand these expenses. We have people in the community who mislead our customers and say … we cheat, we don’t keep the books right and they can’t trust us. The way I look at it, I just need to keep doing in the best way and most honest way I know how.”

Wednesday’s hearing was called to a close during a cross-examination of Snyder, and the hearing will resume today at 9:30 a.m. in the first-floor council chambers of Ranson’s City Building, located at 312 S. Mildred St.