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PSC approves higher water, wastewater rates for Utilities Inc. customers

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The Florida Public Service Commission on Tuesday approved nearly $558 million in water and wastewater rate increases for Utilities Inc. of Florida customers in 10 counties, but some customers would receive refunds.

The new rates are intended to be temporary, to keep the company solvent pending further review of its finances and operating expenses by commission staff.

The vote followed the board’s approval on Oct. 11 of a limited 5.5 percent water rate increase for Pasco County customers, to finance the conversion to county water.

The utility’s supplies there have failed to meet state and federal quality standards.

And the vote came while commission staff continued to evaluate the utility’s request to sweep all of its customers into a single base rate, a matter likely to be decided next year.

The limited increase would factor into the consolidated rate case, in any event, commission analyst Denise Vandiver said following the hearing.

“Frankly, I think they probably should all be heard at the same time,” said Patty Christensen, a lawyer in the Office of Public Counsel, which represents ratepayers before the commission.

The interim increases approved Tuesday won’t go into effect until the customers receive formal notice, probably within about 30 days, according to J.R. Kelly, head of the public counsel’s office.

Here’s a summary of the new interim rates, which are detailed here (scroll down to Item 2):

Water customers in Marion County would pay an additional $80,785 per year, or more than 50 percent on top of what they’re paying now. Those in Seminole County would pay an extra $186,352, an increase of more than 18 percent.

Customers in Pinellas County would experience an increase of more than 9 percent, and those in Pasco more than 6 percent. Those in Lake Placid, in Highlands County, would pay nearly 15 percent more.

Wastewater rates in Marion County would increase by almost 66 percent; in Pasco by 21.4 percent; and in Lake Placid by less than 1 percent. Rates in Tierra Verde, in Pinellas, would rise by nearly 7 percent.

Meanwhile, the utility would have to refund nearly $531,000, with interest, to water and wastewater customers in some locations, to correct earnings over its legally allowed return on investment.

Ann Marie Ryan, representing the Summertree Water Alliance, comprising customers in Pasco County, complained most of the people affected by the vote had no idea they faced higher rates.

Commission staff said such notice isn’t routine for interim rate requests, intended to make sure utilities earn their legal returns on investment pending a final rate hearing.

Utility attorney Martin Friedman suggested allowing customers to address the commissioners during an interim rate proceeding was unheard of.

“Participation is at this commission’s discretion,” chairwoman Julie Imanuel Brown said. “It is not precedential in any nature. I believe that customer participation is central to our overall decision-making process.”

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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