AV Water customers successfully petition for PRC hearing about rate increase
Customer protests led to PRC review of pending rate increases for AV Water. Here's why Commissioner Espinoza says the case is important. Farmington Daily Times
About 13% of the customers filed protests with the PRC after AV Water announced plans for rate increases
FARMINGTON — After learning about planned rate increases, a group of community advocates known as Animas Valley Water Protesters who organized during the 2016 boil water advisory started gathering protests to submit to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.
Kalee Chivers-Grothe, a group founder, allowed people to come to Dino’s Hideaway, where she is general manager, for assistance. Meanwhile, two other advocates went door to door.
These efforts proved successful in at least delaying the rate increase.
The PRC rules allow small water companies with less than 5,000 service connections to implement small rate increases without a PRC hearing unless at least 10% of the customers file protests.
AV Water has 1,875 customers, or service connections, in Crouch Mesa and surrounding areas. Of those customers, 238 filed protests — which is nearly 13% of the customers.
Chivers-Grothe said she thinks that percentage would have been higher if there was more awareness about the rate increases. She said the fact that AV Water initially advertised a rate increase in May, then pulled it and sent out another notice in November confused customers. AV Water withdrew the first advice notice due to various errors in the filing, including an error in the bill analysis on the notice. This error showed customers that use the most water getting a rate decrease rather than an increase.
The company claimed the increased rates are needed to offset operating costs, which it says have escalated since the PRC last approved a rate increase in 2016.
The last rate increase came shortly before the New Mexico Environment Department issued boil water advisories for both systems then owned by the water company. One water system, Harvest Gold, has since become a public utility known as Apple Orchard Mutual Domestic Water Users Association.
The new rates — which would have been 8% higher than current rates — were scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 9, however an order issued by the PRC on Dec. 4 has suspended the rate increase for nine months, with the option of extending the suspension for an additional three months if needed.
This decision came toward the end of the PRC’s Dec. 4 meeting and Commissioner Valerie Espinoza had a meeting she needed to get to. However, she chose to risk being late for her meeting in order to hear about the case.
“It’s so important for me to stay for this because of the AV Water situation we’ve had in the past that I’ve been so involved in,” Espinoza said when PRC Chairwoman Theresa Becenti-Aguilar offered that she could leave.
Customers like Chivers-Grothe say they understand the need to invest in the system.
“We still have major issues up here,” she said, adding that at certain times of day there is not enough water pressure at her house to take a shower.
But customers were concerned that another 8% increase would come next year and, Chivers-Grothe said, customers still have concerns with the billing practices.
She explained that the billing cycle is often 46 days or more and if customers use more than 3,000 gallons during the billing cycle they are charged more. She said she wants a 28 to 30-day billing cycle.
Chivers-Grothe said she hopes the PRC hearing provides mediation between the customers and the water company as well as additional oversight regarding AV Water’s expenditures.
And, as protesters, Chivers-Grothe said the advocacy group will continue to speak out.
“We have a voice and we want to be heard,” she said.
AV Water declined to comment.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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