About 80 Hillview Water Company customers gathered inside the Yosemite High School cafeteria last week to demand explanations, in some cases with audibly-angry tones, on why their monthly rates could be increased as much as 46% under a proposal from the company being reviewed by the state.
Hillview wishes to raise the rates for its some 1,470 customers across the board as California’s drought, and expected statewide water use reductions, will cause a revenue shortfall of some $180,000.
In addition to reduced revenue, Hillview President Roger Forrester and General Manager James Foster said at the Thursday, Sept. 3 meeting the increase is necessary to off-set rising operational costs, including greater costs of compliance with state regulators since the last increase in 2009.
As requested, and if approved by the California Public Utilities Commission which can decide how much monthly rates rise based on its detailed review of the request, Hillview would see an annual revenue increase of $653,296.
Paying those bills would be about 1,300 connections with a 3/4 inch meter, with a monthly rate increase from $32.23 to $49.70 per month.
Another 68 customers with 1-inch meters would increase from $51.74 to $82.83 a month. Rates for the company haven’t increased since 2009, Forrester and Foster said.
Both company officials reiterated those increases were necessary and said without higher revenues, they would be unable to pay qualified operators to run three proposed new treatment plants that will clear up water quality, among other issues.
“We’re sorry we have to pass these costs along but we have to so we get the ability to install these treatment plants and get things running,” Forrester said.
The treatment plants, alongside four other projects, are funded by state grants and if those fall through due to lack of revenue, Foster said customers could see their rates increase by tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Plus, even if or when the increased rates go through, customers on other water systems in the area, such as Bass Lake Water Company, will still pay higher rates, Foster added.
Customers on Hillview’s system remained less than pleased.
Concerns ranged from why Hillview’s water - which exceeds federal standards for contaminants like uranium, iron and manganese - hasn’t been properly filtered as promised in previous years, to why salaries should be increased when demanding more from customer wallets.
Taylor Grant, who runs a hairdressing business in Oakhurst, said she was worried about the fate of local businesses if customers are faced with higher prices.
“We’re talking about our whole community,” Grant said. “It would become too expensive to live here if you have to pass on rising costs to your customers. And we’ve all seen it, businesses are leaving. I’m very concerned about what will happen to our community if we’re all being asked to pay these higher rates all at once.”
Other citizens said they were effectively being held hostage by a private company in control of a public utility, and had no power in the decisions.
Many were also angered that in some cases, such as in Goldside, water is often brown in color and appears undrinkable, alongside the problematic contaminant rates. Foster repeatedly said Hillview conducts thousands of tests every year and Hillview water is safe to drink. Color concerns are a secondary issue unrelated to health issues, Foster said.
As far as delays to the treatment plants and other projects that were estimated to start construction a few years ago, Forrester said that was a product of state regulations and other issues, not Hillview.
“We have jumped through every hoop and done everything we can,” Forrester said. “Hillview is not responsible for one single delay in these projects ... we’re doing everything as fast as we can and we have continually pressed the state and others to get these projects going as soon as possible.”
Hank Schulz contended though Hillview said its rates hadn’t been increased since 2009, his payments have gone up 24% from November 2014 to July of this year, through new meter fees and other additional charges.
He added in the meeting, he felt both Hillview and their customers lost as information was inadequately provided.
“The community and Hillview would both be better served if Hillview willingly communicated their challenges and invited the community to partner with them in seeking mutually beneficial solutions,” Schulz said.
Foster said after the meeting, Hillview learned two things - fix water quality and improve communication.
“Our take is one, people clearly want those problems with water quality fixed,” Foster said. “They want those contaminants taken care of once and for all and that’s what we’re trying to do.
“Two, we need to improve the way we communicate,” he continued. “So even if people aren’t satisfied with what they hear, at least we can communicate to them so there’s not a lot of misinformation going around.”
Moises Chavez, a regulatory analyst with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) at the informal meeting, said he plans to submit his recommendations on the proposal to a water commission in October. His recommendations will include how much, if at all, rates will increase.
The public will have 22 days to respond to that submitted report, and Chavez said as soon as he completes it he will send it to customers for review.
Details: Hillview water reports and documents are available at h2oakhurst.com, with copies of the company’s financial records and rate proposal available on request to Hillview, at 10 cents per page by calling (559) 683-4322. The rate increase proposal can also be seen at the Oakhurst Branch Library.