by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark assistant editor
Three local mayors voiced concern that Platte County residents bear among the highest costs in the state for water and some suffer from quality issues related to the vital natural resource.
The Missouri Public Service Commission this week heard testimony from about a dozen Platte County residents who urged the commission to block the rate increase being proposed by the Missouri-American Water Company and spoke of water quality issues in their homes.
The water company is seeking to increase base rates by $51 million or 19.63%.
In the state of Missouri, the water company does not have the authority to arbitrarily increase rates. The Missouri Public Service Commission regulates a number of investor-owned companies that supply public service utilities like natural gas, steam, water, electric, water and sewer.
The commission can adjust water rates only after a rigorous auditing process where the Missouri-American Water Company bears the burden of proof. If the commission believes the investment is fair, it has the authority to grant the water company’s request.
The Missouri American Water Company filed for a rate increase on July 31, 2015. The last water and sewer rate increase in Platte County was four years ago. But water rates vary greatly across the state. The Missouri-American Water Company says its proposal to consolidate its 36 rate districts in Missouri to just three water rates zones and two sewer rate zones will create more uniform pricing.
If the commission approves to modify the rate, the average Platte County customer of Missouri American will actually see a decrease of $6.38 per month or about 9.6 percent per month.
Christie Barnhart with Missouri-American Water Company said “the rate request was filed to recover costs for investments in water and sewer system infrastructure that we have made in our Missouri operations over the last four years totaling about $430 million dollars.”
But three local mayors say Platte County residents will still be forced to bear higher costs than other metropolitan areas across the state. They also point out the rate proposal is at a time when two percent of the company’s customer base in Parkville is having concerns with the quality of water coming out of their faucets.
While addressing the commission Monday, Riverside Mayor Kathy Rose said that water rates in Platte County are already the highest in the state.
“This is the fifth rate increase in nine years being sought in this district,” said Kathy Rose. “Clearly, the rate increases have far exceeded the income increases of the citizens in the Platte County district.”
Rose said Riverside has successfully intervened the four or five times the water company sought to increase their rates. Rather than sustaining a 30 or 40 percent increase, the city of Riverside’s efforts resulted in a 20 percent increase.
In spite of everything, Rose said the water rate in Platte County is almost 50 percent higher than St. Louis, 60 percent higher than Jefferson City, 70 percent higher than Mexico and Joplin, 100 percent higher than St. Joseph and a 140 percent higher than Warrensburg.
“If the company is successful in the rate increase they propose, Platte County rates will still be 28 to 68 percent higher than other metropolitan areas in the Missouri-American Water districts,” said Rose.
She pointed out that companies can recover higher water costs by increasing the price for their product. Residents, on the other hand, must absorb the entire cost. Rose urged officials to implement a multi-tiered class structure where residents pay a lesser rate than commercial and industrial.
“The resident rate payer has been forgotten over the last decade,” said Rose.
Another key concern is paying for a larger quantity of water than what residents actual use.
“It is just my husband and I (in a single family dwelling),” said Rose. “He is retired. We don’t even use 3,000 gallons of water a month in my home, but I am being charged and have to pay for a minimum of 6,500 gallons. It doesn’t seem fair.”
The Missouri-American Water Company denied that it charges customers for a minimum of 6,500 gallons of water each month.
“Each bill is comprised of a fixed charge and volumetric charge,” said Barnhart. “The fixed charge is the same every month and is the charge for the water meter. The charge varies based on meter size. The usage, or amount of water a customer uses each month is the volumetric charge. It varies each month typically based on use (higher in the summer, lower in the winter.)”
Several water customers voiced concerns that the proposed rate increase comes at a time when they are dealing with calcium deposits that are allegedly clogging and destroying the appliances in their homes.
Jason Strohm, a resident of Thousand Oaks subdivision, claimed the condition of the water coming into his home is concerning because it has caused the water heater, the dish washer, faucets and toilets in his home to fail.
In spite of numerous service calls to the water department, he said his situation has not been remedied.
“I find it appalling that Missouri-American Water wishes for a rate increase…when their product is woefully harmful to each and every individual in Platte County,” said Strohm.
Following his lengthy sworn testimony, Commissioner William Kenney urged Strohm to file a formal complaint with the Missouri Public Service Commission and speak with the Office of the Public Counsel. When Commissioner Kenney asked Strohm if the water quality coming from his faucet was drinkable, Strohm said he assumes it is but it has not been tested. The commissioner recommended that Strohm contact the Department of Natural Resources to test the water quality coming out of his faucet.
Anthony Shores, a Platte Woods resident with a background in water auditing and management, said the way the water company calculates the cost of water in this region is unusually inefficient. He said the “more you use, the less you pay” method is something he has never seen before.
Shore said it is counterproductive to charge the highest rate while doing nothing to encourage a reduction in overall water usage.
Shores said it is concerning that the same water company, in the same state, using the same river, charges three times more on the west side of the state.
“In relation to other cities and water boards across the country, it is some of the highest price water across the entire country per capita and size,” said Shores. “I have been in my residence for over 25 years and our water bill has gone up 300 to 400 times.”
Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston said she is concerned that a number of Platte County residents are having water quality issues. She said it is difficult to gauge just how many people are dealing with the problem as it is so sporadic, but residents in Riss Lake and Thousand Oaks are having issues.
“Our residents are angry about the rates and angry about the water quality,” said Johnston.
Platte Woods Mayor John Smedley said 40 percent of residents in Platte Woods are over the age of 70 and are living on a fixed income. He said 60 percent of Platte Woods residents are retired. For those individuals, he said an increased water rate would be unduly burdensome.
Smedley suggested the Missouri-American Water Company rein in costs through other mechanisms. Over the past two years, Smedley said he has witnessed numerous situations where water waste wasn’t handled effectively.
He said it took two days for the water company to respond to a situation where water was running down a storm water drain. The department, he said, erred on its assessment, which caused more manpower, higher repair costs, and greater water waste.
Russ Wojtkiewicz, a resident in unincorporated Platte County, said when residents put in their best effort to reduce water and energy usage, investor-owned companies hike up rates to cover losses.
He said this behavior has got to stop.
“There is an easy solution, but it means competition with each of these utility companies,” said Wojtkiewicz. “In this particular instance, every time it rains most of us have a house that can collect about 700, 800, or 1,000 gallons in water runoff. It would be very easy and cost effective to put a water filtering system in and use our own water.”
Jim Churchill, a six-year resident of the Montebello subdivision in Riverside, argued that deposits of calcium have been clogging fixtures in his home. He submitted evidence to the commission allegedly revealing a blockage from water sediment. He said of the 55-60 homes in Montebello, approximately 30 residents in the subdivision responded to an online request from the homeowner’s association identifying they had a concern with the water pressure in their home.
Following the two-hour public hearing, the commission adjourned.
In the weeks ahead, the Missouri Public Service Commission will have an opportunity to review the testimony and evidence presented at the hearing. The commission will hold an evidentiary hearing on March 14 in Jefferson City. The hearing will be broadcast over the Internet. Customers can watch the hearing at www.psc.mo.gov.
Should the rate increase occur, the Missouri-American Water Company said the cost of water service will resume at one cent per gallon. According to the water company, over the past four years it has made $6 million in improvements to the local water system. The water company installed 6,000 feet of 24- inch water pipe along Horizons Parkway in Riverside.
The Missouri-American Water Company also relocated 2,000 feet of 12-inch water pipe along Mattox Road, relocated 132 feet of six-inch and 413.5 feet of 12-inch water pipe on 72nd Street and replaced filter media and control valves at the water treatment facility.
The Missouri Public Service Commission has until June to make a final decision on Missouri-American’s rate request.