WILLIAMSON – The Public Service Commission (PSC) held a second public comment hearing Tuesday, Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. at the Williamson Fire House concerning Williamson’s water and sewer rates.
Keith A. George, Chief Administrative Law Judge, opened the hearing stating, “I think it is appropriate for Staff, who has had a chance to audit and its report, indicate what they recommend at this point. This is the Staff for the Commission, not the Commission and the Commission may or may not adopt staff recommended rates or rates recommended by any party.”
Linda Bouvette, Staff Attorney for the PSC, provided a summary of recommended sewer rates. Bouvette explained that a two-step rate decrease was recommended for the sewer rates. “The first step is a decrease of 14.99 percent over the current rate. That would be in effect for 24 months. The step two rate is a decrease of 25.4 percent over current rates,” Bouvette stated.
Separate public comment hearings were held for sewer and water rates. After an explanation of the Staff recommendations for sewer rates, the public had the option to voice their concerns concerning the sewer rates.
Several residents made public comment. The first to speak was Michael Baisden. “With this recommendation, the first question that comes to my mind is: What was this based on? I am sure that we will find out soon enough. Have we been overpaying in the past? Of course, the underlying problem is the 1.2 million dollars (debt to Veolia) which is the elephant in the room that nobody has mentioned yet…” Baisden continued stating, “We still want to know: where the money went? Why the money went and what is being done to investigate where the money went? We were promised an investigation, a full investigation at the time it first came out. Since then, it has gone as quiet as can be… We want to know where our money went and why it went.”
The next to speak concerning the sewer rates was Teresa McCune. McCune serves as Chief Public Defender for Mingo County. McCune discussed the local demographics of the area stating, “I looked up a lot of information about how poor we are, how old we are, how many of us are on fixed incomes but I am sure the PSC already has that kind of information. I think that kind of information is very important…” McCune continued, discussing her involvement with the rate increase that was originally proposed by the City of Williamson on Aug. 16, including circulating a petition and assisting in a letter requesting an investigation. McCune stated, “On Aug. 18, 2015 eight of us lawyers here in town wrote to the Prosecuting Attorney, Teresa Maynard, asking her to investigate where this 1.2 million went… she told us that she had turned it over to the state police. We have never heard anything else about that…”
Shawn Williamson was the next to make public comment. Williamson stated, “When this first started, the council came to us and they pretty much just put it on us that we were going to get this increase and could not give us any specifics why or reasons. They just said we owe this amount. When everybody stepped up and started looking into this, they were able to come across money. I don’t know what your records show; if you all were able to look into anything of their money management to see why they were trying to put this increase on us or if that is even allowed… someone should be held accountable in their staffing in my opinion.”
Jim Meade was the next to make public comment. “As everyone knows, City Hall has had a swinging door on it the last couple of months. We have mayors coming and going, mayors caught up in unscrupulous activities and now there is a million dollars missing. No one knows where it is, no one is going to answer any questions, and no one is going to look into it…. What are they doing with the money? Where is this money going? No one knows…” Meade continued stating, “Public Service Commission should know that of all the towns in this state, what town would pay that kind of a rate? I don’t know what it would take to get the FBI involved but whatever it is…..get someone from the outside to come in and do a complete investigation…” Meade also discussed holding those accountable for past due bills. “I want to see who owes this money. List it in the paper so people can see,” Meade stated.
Immediately following the adjournment of the public hearing concerning the sewer rate, a public comment hearing concerning the water rate was held.
George opened the meeting stating, “The purpose of tonight’s hearing is to take public comment. However, since Staff has rendered an opinion on what the rates should be, I will ask Mrs. Bouvette to share that opinion regarding the water rates.”
Bouvette summarized the recommended water rate. “Again we are recommending a two-step rate change. For the first 24 months, we recommend a rate of 11.04 percent over the current rates. That would last for 24 months. At the end of the 24 months, we would have step two rates which is 2.54 percent less than the step one rates and that would remain in effect until the city proposes an ordinance to change the rates,” Bouvette explained.
The public was then given the opportunity to voice their concerns on the water rate. Michael Baisden was the first to speak. Baisden stated, “I understand now we are talking about the water rate. I understand that according to her recommendations, and without looking at it in detail, on the surface it looks like a much better rate than what we have been told about in the past. It almost looks like it is going to be a break even deal if they follow her recommendations and I hope they do. I hope that the council will follow the recommendations…”
McCune was the next to speak. “I don’t know if it would be helpful, and I don’t know if this is the correct forum to do it but I could also supply you with the letter that us eight lawyers wrote to the Prosecuting Attorney and her response if that would be something appropriate to go into the record…”
George responded, giving McCune the okay to send the letter to the PSC to be included in the case file.
Steve Venturino was the next to provide comment. Venturino asked, “Can these people come behind you and raise it up that 50 percent that they are wanting or is that it?”
George responded stating, “Cities can enact ordinances and the only way the PSC has any jurisdiction is if the petitions are submitted to comply with the statutes and then the Commission could review those rates… The only way we have jurisdiction is if the sufficient number of people protest.”
The hearing continued with Jim Meade being the next to make comment. “I understand that the Mountain Water District, some 20 years ago, had a court ruling that said that the rates couldn’t be raised… My understanding is that the rates haven’t been raised in 20 years. Because some judge in some courtroom made a ruling 20 years ago does not mean that it can’t be revisited. They need to pay their fair share. I don’t have any idea what any individual on Mountain Water District pays, but I do know that it not fair for them to receive the same water that I get at half the price. It’s not right… that needs to be revisited,” Meade said.
The last to make comment was Vivian Phillips. Phillips stated, “I am retired. I am one of those persons that are on a fixed income… I had a friend that came up to me, we go to church together, and she said that she wished that we would stop complaining about the water. I asked why. She said since you all have been complaining, the Mountain Water District raised my water bill.”
George concluded the public hearing stating, “The hearing is adjourned. I will set an evidentiary hearing relatively promptly. Thank you very much and I appreciate your input.”
(Courtney Pigman is a news reporter for the Williamson Daily News. She can be contacted at [email protected], or at 304-235-4242, ext. 2279.)