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Protest Delays Water Hike

Ohio County residents claim discrimination over Wheeling’s rates

December 22, 2011
By ZACH MACORMAC Staff Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING - Those opposed to a 70-percent rate increase for water treated in Wheeling are getting their wish - at least for the time being.

A protest from three resale customers prompted the West Virginia Public Service Commission to suspend the hike until April 28 "to enable the commission to examine and investigate the proposed water rate increase and to provide time for the Commission's Administrative Law Judge to conduct the necessary hearing required by" state code.

David Hanna, attorney for Triadelphia, Valley Grove and the Ohio County Public Service District, claimed discrimation in a protest and petition to intervene filed against the city of Wheeling. Only one protest claiming discrimination is needed from a resale customer to initiate a suspension. Petition signatures from 25 percent of the 13,250 city customers also would also have warranted an investigation, but fewer than 30 customers objected.

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Photo by Zach Macormac
For now, the cost of water will remain the same for customers of the Wheeling Water Department, as three resale customers filed a protest that prompted the West Virginia Public Service Commission to suspend a proposed rate hike until April 28.

Without the protest, the new rate would have taken effect Dec. 31 and the plant construction it was to fund would have started this spring. But the average monthly water rate of $19.44 will remain in place for now. The rate increase is needed to accommodate a $36 million water treatment plant update set to be complete by summer 2014.

The consequences of the protest, City Manager Robert Herron said, will be higher costs in the long run.

If city attorneys can prove no discrimination, then the city will need to wait to increase rates until the earliest possible date allowed by the PSC, which in the "worst case scenario" is when the plant is complete. In that case, the water hike would need to be 80 percent due to an additional $5 million in interest expected to accumulate from the time bonds are issued to the plant's completion date. The average bill would then go up to $34.99.

"We're not discriminating against them, but they seem to think we are," Herron said, adding all resale customers are served in the same manner as Wheeling customers.

He also noted the project start date may have to be pushed back, and there will be significant costs associated with the legal battle in front of the PSC judge.

Mayor Andy McKenzie added he believes residents in the protesting areas should be penalized with an extra increase to make up for the added $5 million while non-protesting customers should pay the 70 percent. Herron said that would not be allowed by law.

"Why should I pay more because of them?" McKenzie said.

Hanna argues that because they will not own and maintain the facility, his clients should not pay extra to compensate for its construction.

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