York County does want to intervene in the Carolina Water Service rate case, after all.
The South Carolina Public Service Commission received a petition from the county Jan. 23. York County asked to become a party of record, allowing the county to participate in hearings, offer testimony and exhibits, address a part of the rate case the county says wasn’t initially “evident” and receive all motions, briefs, correspondence and settlement offers among all parties.
So far, the commission hasn’t decided on the petition. Parties had until Jan. 9 to file as “intervenors.” York County Council called a special meeting that day to discuss whether to file, but opted to cancel the meeting and instead continue separate negotiations with Carolina Water on the utility’s franchise agreement. That agreement, between the county and utility, comes due Feb. 17.
In its recent petition, the county claims a utility system improvement rate requested as part of the rate increases was “not evident from the face of the application” and that, once the county understood the impact it could have on customers, York County “undertook appropriate action” to petition the service commission past the deadline.
In the request Carolina Water filed last fall to raise water and sewer rates roughly 15 to 30 percent for customers statewide, the utility also asked for several other changes. They impact back flow testing, water meter installation and liability for damages during service interruptions.
One change would create a utility system improvement rate, allowing Carolina Water to petition the public service commission for rate changes to cover costs without opening a new case each time. The utility asked for up to 10 percent of capital investments from the current rate case decision to be eligible for the new rate.
In its petition, York County argues that setup would be new in South Carolina and would prevent utility customers “the ability to challenge the reasonableness” of future rate increases. It also would eliminate “the ability of any reviewing party or agency to thoroughly check the propriety” of rate increases through inspection, audit or examination.
The county petition calls the new service rate proposal “a matter of importance” for citizens, who don’t have an advocate representing them in utility matters.
As of Thursday afternoon, the only approved intervenors in the case were the state Office of Regulatory Staff and the Forty Love Point Homeowners Association. A Fort Mill also applied to intervene, in a letter marked by the deadline date, but received eight days past it.
Hearings and protests
So far, the only scheduled hearings in the rate case are March 15 and April 3, both in Columbia. One was approved by a Lexington resident requesting a night hearing.
York County Councilwoman Allison Love requested another be held in Lake Wylie. Homeowners in the Shandon subdivision, in Rock Hill, requested a meeting “at a central York County location.”
“A neighborhood hearing for York County residents, with its convenience of closer proximity and evening scheduling, would allow a greater number of affected consumers an opportunity to attend, give testimony, present evidence and otherwise participate in the hearing process,” they wrote to the commission.
Night hearings also have been requested in Beaufort, Greenville and Lexington counties, along with Leesville.
Many in York County aren’t waiting for a local hearing to be heard. As of mid-afternoon Thursday, 40 people have signed on in protest of the rate increases. More than half from this area, with 12 giving Lake Wylie or Clover addresses and nine more listing Fort Mill.
“The water in River Hills is already too high and Carolina Water wants another increase,” wrote Lake Wylie resident Tommy Haughton.
Jennifer Robson, a Foxwood resident in the Fort Mill area, also disagreed with the premise of the increases, that the utility needs money to offset infrastructure upgrades already completed.
“We pay one of the highest rates in the state and they say it is due to infrastructure,” she wrote. “The pipes in our neighborhood are over 40 years (old), I have yet to see them replace or clean anything.”
Big utility questions
On Dec. 28, the office of regulatory staff petitioned the public service commission asking them to order all investor-owned utility companies to report the impact of the federal tax changes on the company’s operations.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed by President Donald Trump in December, decreases the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent beginning in 2018.
“Many South Carolina utilities, under the jurisdiction of this commission, recover federal corporate tax income expenses at the corporate tax rate of 35 percent through tariff rates charged to the utility customers,” wrote attorneys for the office of regulatory staff.
Those rates include general rate, rate stabilization, adjustment, demand and efficiency approvals by the service commission. The petition recognizes Carolina Water and three other utilities have pending rate cases.
“The effects of the (tax) act can be addressed as a part of those proceedings,” the attorneys wrote.
Meanwhile, the state legislature is taking up utility matters, too. On Jan. 24 the South Carolina House of Representatives passed a bill creating a utility oversight committee and outlining how it will operate. Including how it will select public service commission members and the office of regulatory staff director. In a separate decision, the same lawmakers voted to create a utilities consumer advocate in the office of the state attorney general.
“Everything was geared toward restructuring, retooling, trying to get some more accountability,” said state Rep. Tommy Pope, a co-sponsor of both bills.
Pope said there are reasons why public service commission changes may come slowly, particularly the potential fallout from nuclear issues. The state is working through the ramifications after a nuclear reactor project stalled, and there are deadlines the public service commission has to meet in response to legal issues.
“If you cleaned house and didn’t put people back in place quickly enough, it could be to the state’s detriment,” Pope said.
As for Carolina Water, Pope said he has been to community meetings on past rate increases with considerable public outcry.
“And then it seemed like it was almost rubber stamped,” he said.
The new laws could lead to changes for future rate cases, if not the current one.
“There’s going to be an opportunity for some more accountability,” Pope said.
The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce chimed in on the decisions, calling them “good for job creators” and also for utility customers.
“The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce is made up of the largest users of energy in the Palmetto state,” said Ted Pitts, chamber president and CEO. “We applaud the work of the South Carolina House of Representatives on behalf of the state’s ratepayers and the efforts to bring meaningful reform to the system.”
York County and Carolina Water continue work on the franchise agreement between them. The county passed two of three readings needed to extend it. Council only has one scheduled meeting, on Feb. 5, ahead of the deadline for the current franchise agreement. Twice now the county and utility have extended the agreement six months, allowing more time to negotiate.
The franchise agreement up for discussion now, unlike the state case, only impacts Lake Wylie customers of the utility.
Opportunities for testimony continue in the statewide Carolina Water service case. A decision from the public service commission won’t come until after the April 3 hearing in Columbia.