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Petitions oppose water rate hike

Saying it would hurt 250,000 state residents, the AARP is marshalling protests against a proposed 20 percent rate increase by West Virginia American Water that the company says it needs to recoup money spent on massive system upgrades.

The state Public Service Commission will hold statewide public hearings later this month on the company's proposal, which was filed with the regulatory body in December.

Laura Jordan, water company spokeswoman, said the rate hike would increase the average consumer's bill by about $8.13 per month.

She said the average customer uses 3,315 gallons per month, costing $39.11. She said if the PSC grants the full rate increase, the average monthly bill would increase to $47.24.

Jordan also said the company has 171,000 customers in West Virginia, not a quarter-million.

The AARP has different estimates.

In a press release sent out Wednesday, the organization predicted consumers' average monthly bills would increase by $10.49 per month, from $50.50 to $60.99.

AARP spokesman Tom Hunter said those figures are based on usage averages from the PSC's consumer advocate division, which estimates state households use 4,500 gallons of water per month.

As of Wednesday evening, the PSC had received 269 petitions opposing the rate increase.

None had been received in favor of it.

Hunter said whether bills increase by $8.13 per month or $10.49 per month, the hike still would hurt low-income consumers.

"It doesn't matter which numbers you use, it's still 20 percent. If you use 4,500 gallons, if you use 1,500 gallons, it's a 20 percent increase," he said.

Hunter said other utilities, including Mon Power to the north and Appalachian Power in southern West Virginia, also are looking to increase rates. That could put a pinch on low-income seniors who live on fixed incomes, he said.

Jordan said the water company understands those hardships, which is why West Virginia American Water fought alongside AARP West Virginia for legislation to expand a rate discount program to 68,000 state residents.

The legislation created a 20 percent utility discount for some low-income customers.

The company says it needs the rate hike to recoup the $85 million it has spent since 2009 on rehabilitation of water storage tanks and upgrading water lines, booster stations and water treatment facilities.

The company spent about $24 million on upgrades last year and anticipates it will spend even more in 2013.

Jordan said costs are climbing because the infrastructure is aging: some water pipes in the state are more than 100 years old.  

"It's a national phenomenon. It's something every water system in the United States is experiencing," she said.

The PSC will hold two public hearings on June 11 - one in Flatwoods at the Days Hotel and Conference Center and one in Bluefield at the Army National Guard Armory.

It will also hold a meeting in Charleston June 17 at the PSC's hearing room at 201 Brooks St. and one the following day in Huntington's Pullman Plaza Hotel.

All four meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

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