The PRC debates the value of non-potable water; Morningstar customers received bills for five-month time frame

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FARMINGTON — Some Morningstar water utility customers say they are being billed twice for water after receiving a bill for a five-month period last week.

AV Water Co. owns two water systems in San Juan County — Morningstar and Harvest Gold, which have had problems delivering drinkable water. Customers on both systems have concerns about their bills.

While most people have been billed a little more than $169 for a five-month period starting in October, some of the customers say they have already paid bills during that time and others say they have also been billed for past due amounts that they have disputed through the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.

It is the first bill the utility's customers have gotten since a receiver was appointed to take over the Morningstar system from AV Water Co.

Gay Deen Graves, a Morningstar resident, paid $41.93 in October and $59.80 in December. Her water bill states that her last payment was received on Dec. 12. Despite that, she received a bill for more than $169 for the five months.

Graves said phone calls to the company were not returned and no one was at the office when she went during business hours.

"The frustrating thing is there's no one to talk to," she said.

Graves is not the only one who has had questions about their bills. Kalee Chivers-Grothe, who organized the Animas Valley Water Protesters group, said she has helped about a dozen people dispute their charges.

During a meeting today  in Santa Fe, the Public Regulation Commission approved an order prohibiting AV Water from collecting payments from or billing Harvest Gold customers, who still are under a boil water advisory. The meeting was streamed live on the PRC website. The order also requires AV Water to give customers credits or refunds for the bills they have paid for water while a boil water advisory was in effect.

"It doesn't make sense that these people are paying for unusable water," said Commissioner Lynda Lovejoy, who represents San Juan County.

The order only applies to Harvest Gold customers and not to Morningstar customers. The Harvest Gold customers live in a subdivision east of Bloomfield while the Morningstar customers live in Crouch Mesa and surrounding areas. Morningstar customers were on a boil water advisory, but it was quickly lifted when the water quality improved. Morningstar customers still will be required to pay their bills.

With the bills, the receiver included a letter stating that customers will not be billed for any time prior to October and the revenues from billing will be used to "get the water system back on track."

The receiver could not immediately be reached for comment.

AV Water attorney Germaine Chappelle said AV Water will not receive any of the proceeds from the Morningstar system, even though the bills say to make checks payable to AV Water Co.

In addition to prohibiting AV Water from billing customers in Harvest Gold, the PRC issued a daily fine of $50 for each Harvest Gold meter until the boil water advisory is lifted. This is not the first time the PRC has fined AV Water. The PRC fined the company, its owner and affiliated companies $1 million in November. AV Water filed an appeal last week with the New Mexico Supreme Court disputing the $1 million fine.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

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