As a decision looms in the case that could affect Lake Wylie water rates for years to come, customers are making a late push to be heard.
Homeowners, businesses and organizations are going on record in opposition to water rate increases. They also want to know what’s being done with the money from past increases, given ongoing water restrictions even as Lake Wylie sits near flood levels.
“(For) Blue Granite to have the nerve to be requesting another rate increase while negatively impacting businesses, unable to communicate properly with its customers and restricting use of water is totally unacceptable for any business,” Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce said in a letter to the state public service commission.
Blue Granite Water Co., formerly Carolina Water Service, applied in November for a rate increase and for the ability to change future rates without public input or more than a month’s notification. State hearings are scheduled June 18-19. A final order from the public service commission is expected by Aug. 21.
The public service commission allows customers to send letters for entry into the public record. There are 54 letters submitted from Lake Wylie customers through mid-Tuesday.
In addition to complaints of high prices and poor service, Lake Wylie customers take issue with the outdoor water use restrictions Blue Granite started before Memorial Day and plan to continue into October.
“Each rate increase it seems is for infrastructure improvements but none are completed as far as the customer knows, and with our current mandatory water conservation status it appears no improvements have been completed,” customer James White said in a submitted letter.
Customer Lynne Gessner wrote: “We had record rainfall in the spring and have just been told that we are under strict water rations until October. Rumors abound as to why, but developers are building many areas around us, and no plans were made to accommodate this large increase. We the current and past homeowners are now looking at burned out lawns, trees dying, recreation spoiled all because of this company’s gross incompetence in management and performance.”
Customer William Wheeler wrote: “We are under a mandatory restriction for outdoor water use despite not being in any form of drought. Instead of putting funds toward repairs and expansion, the company is paying ‘monitors’ to patrol and fine customers. The reason for the restriction? We are told that the area has grown too quickly and the system is not currently able to service the demand.”
Blue Granite says the outdoor watering restrictions are based on unusually high demand in recent weeks and not supply problems. The rate increase case is standard practice based on water costs, the company says.
“The rate increases are for third-party costs from regional bulk water and sewer treatment providers that are neither controlled nor marked up by Blue Granite Water Company,” said Reese Hannon, company spokesperson. “The proposed pass-through of these third-party costs is a long-accepted practice among water and wastewater utilities in the state that purchase bulk water and sewer treatment services. Blue Granite has simply asked the commission to approve the pass-through of these expenses on a regular basis as it does for other utilities.”
Many customers say increases of more than 20% are too high. Many say water bills already exceed $100 a month even for little water use, and are higher than electric and other utility bills.
“We do not have an irrigation system,” customers Barbara and Richard Hilyard said in a letter. “We do not wash our cars. We rarely use our dishwasher. And yet, our water bill is over $100 per month! We are already under water restrictions which have not been explained in terms of the cause of the shortage.”
Many customers are concerned about repeated boil water notices or service being shut off.
The chamber letter mentions a water line break and repair causing an outage from noon to 7 p.m. one day, closing schools and businesses. Some businesses were closed two or three days, the chamber said.
“Imagine more than 25 food-related businesses without advance notice being shut down for three days,” the chamber letter states. “It impacted businesses, hourly employees not working while businesses were shut down, and the bottom line for the month.”
Some wrote of the impact water service has on home values or the ability of businesses to operate. Upper Palmetto YMCA has locations throughout York, Lancaster and Chester counties. There are two in Lake Wylie.
“Currently, Blue Granite charges the highest rate out of all of the water utility providers amongst all of our locations,” the Upper Palmetto protest letter said.
With facility and pool use, water bills can run up to $6,000 a month with Blue Granite even before the summer’s waterpark season peak. Increasing rates more than 20% will “have a negative effect on the operating budgets at these locations which could impact the services we provide,” the letter reads.
Lake Wylie customers soon could get another opportunity to be heard. State Sen. Wes Climer submitted a request to hold a night hearing in York County to let customers offer testimony.
“York County customers should have an opportunity to provide testimony to the commission about how this proposed rate increase will impact them and their community,” Climer wrote.
York County is a party in the rate case proposal. David Hughes, supervisor with the water and sewer division of the county’s public works department, already offered testimony in the case. Blue Granite receives its water from York County, which gets it from Rock Hill.
Hughes testified in favor of a pass-through way of setting rates, without markup or margin, rather than what Blue Granite calls a “rate adjustment mechanism” allowing the utility to set rates without public input. The pass-through would put rate changes in line with the rest of the county, rather than relying on statewide changes throughout the Blue Granite service area.
“The pass-through will present a transparent process so citizens will understand this directly attributable aspect of our regional rates,” Hughes said.