- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - As West Virginia’s biggest water utility seeks permission to raise rates by 28 percent, the Kanawha County Commission and the city of Charleston have filed petitions to intervene in the case.

West Virginia American Water says it needs the rate hike to pay for $105 million in system improvements since 2012 and $98 million in projects planned through February 2017.

Public Service Commission hearings on the increase are scheduled to start Oct. 27. If approved, average monthly bills would increase by nearly $12.

The city and county officials say that’s too much for consumers to pay all at once, and they criticized the company for neglecting its own infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division suggested in a filing Friday a base rate increase of no more than $1.8 million annually.

The PSC’s staff recommends a 9.7 percent rate increase, or $12.1 million, which includes a surcharge for water main replacements.

“It is not wise to continue postponing this issue in light of the poor and deteriorating condition of the company’s distribution infrastructure,” PSC engineer Jonathan M. Fowler wrote in a recent filing. “Further, postponement of this inevitable work will only increase the cost to future generations and will poorly serve the hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens relying upon this aging system.”

County Commissioner Dave Hardy said in a statement released Monday that many citizens will have a difficult time paying for the company’s proposed increase, especially older residents and those on a fixed income.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said in a separate filing with the PSC that the company has neglected its infrastructure, imposing a “pothole” philosophy of fixing problems only when they appear.

“This philosophy has cost the city and its residents and businesses substantial money and time in dealing with street, sidewalk, retaining wall, and slip repairs that have resulted from leaks and breaks in the company’s water lines,” Jones wrote. “When problems are discovered, communication with government agencies and customers is poor, and responses and restoration of services is slow.”

In June, a transmission main break in Dunbar disrupted service to about 25,000 water customers in parts of Cabell, Kanawha, Lincoln and Putnam counties. A second leak occurred at the site two days later.

Advocates for a Safe Water System filed a petition in June to intervene with the PSC. The organization said in the petition that any changes in rates should improve the safety of the water system and “otherwise promote the public interest.”

The organization was formed after a January 2014 chemical spill spurred a ban on using tap water for 300,000 people for up to 10 days.

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