Liberty’s water rates to rise Jan. 1 in Apple Valley (November 18, 2016)

APPLE VALLEY — Rates for customers of the largest water provider here will increase soon — to account for inflation, officials say — and news of the looming adjustment is being characterized by the town’s mayor as putting lipstick on a pig amid an intensifying battle over control.

A nearly 5 percent rate increase will take effect Jan. 1 as part of a three-year case approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in late 2015, according to Liberty Utilities, Apple Valley officials.

The increase will result in more than $1.1 million in revenue, according to CPUC documents, but company officials said the impact on many customers will be minimal — under $6 per billing cycle for those who use less than 8,800 gallons a month.

President of Liberty Utilities California Greg Sorensen told the Daily Press that despite the increase, the average customer’s water bill will be lower in 2017 than it was in 2013.

The State of California requires regulated water providers to account for all spending and limits the amount of ratepayer dollars that can be collected to cover the costs to operate and maintain the system, Sorensen said.

That spin — as town officials have characterized it — drew an acrimonious response from Mayor Barb Stanton, who said Liberty customers will feel the increase in their pocketbooks.

At the end of the day, Stanton said, the people will know that they’re paying more for a unit of water than they were the day before.

Other Apple Valley officials also went on the offensive as the increase provided the first bit of fodder since the Nov. 8 election when Measure W — which proponents said would have paved a path toward community ownership of the company’s water system — failed to garner more votes than Measure V.

A mere nine days after a Liberty Utilities-financed ballot measure passed, which will make it harder for the community to buy the water system, Liberty filed a notice that it wants to raise water rates nearly 5 percent, a town statement read.

Town Manager Frank Robinson added the increase is another example of Liberty’s careless disregard for its ratepayers.

This is extremely dishonest, Robinson said. Liberty knew this increase was coming. It seems they deliberately held off on sending a public notice until after the election because they knew it would hurt Measure V.

Documents obtained from Liberty show that the CPUC requires regulated utilities to file an escalation year rate adjustment 45 days before implementation; the company made that filing on Wednesday and is preparing to send notices to customers, according to Liberty officials.

Meanwhile, General Manager Tony Penna characterized the town’s attack as the dissemination of misinformation.

There is no controversy, Penna said. This is a simple compliance filing that was approved by state regulators in the last General Rate Case more than a year ago to balance for inflation … None of this is new information to the Town, and this process is not something that’s unique to Liberty Utilities.

Penna added that Liberty recognizes increases can be challenging for customers.

Those (customers) who may face difficulty as a result of the increase are encouraged to look into the California Alternate Rates for Water program, which provides for a discounted monthly bill, he said.

The rate increase, which Liberty maintains is necessary to recover the cost of providing water service, follows a 43-cent surcharge that went into effect in March that allows the company to recoup nearly $3 million in revenue lost during an 11-month period in 2015.

The three years of increases approved by the CPUC on Nov. 19, 2015, result in a rate of return of nearly 9.3 percent, documents show, an amount Robinson criticized.

Even the most lucrative Wall Street companies are not making 9 percent a year, he said, adding that customers can expect Liberty to start another three-year cycle of rate increases in January.

Those wishing to protest Liberty’s filing have 20 days — as of Nov. 16 — to do so, according to CPUC regulations.

Emailed protests may be sent to [email protected]cpuc.ca.gov.

Written protests may be sent to the CPUC’s Water Division at the following address: Tariff Unit, Water Division, 3rd floor, California Public Utilities Commission, 505 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94102.

Source: Matthew Cabe, Daily Press