Editor’s Note: Read the letter Sen. Robert Nichols and Rep. Lance Gooden sent to Gov. Rick Perry last week asking that water consumer rights be added to the Special Session.
By Michael V. Hannigan
Monarch Utilities recently filed a request with the Texas Commission on Environmental Control (TCEQ) to raise water and sewer rates. The combined increase will be about 55 percent utility-wide and is set to go into effect Aug. 1.
Monarch is a member of the Southwest Water Company and serves 23,000 customers in about 90 small water systems. Monarch has many customers around the Cedar Creek Lake Area, including: Beachwood Estates, Carolynn Estates, Cherokee Shores, Michael’s Cove, and the Pinnacle Club.
According to Monarch’s Notice of Proposed Rate Change, most customers using 10,000 gallons of water a month and a 5/8-inch or 3/4-inch meter currently pay $89.59 for water and $63.72 for sewer (a combined $153.31). After the increase, the same 10,000 gallons will cost $129.82 for water and $102.99 for sewer (a combined $232.81).
The rate increase will be challenged.
“A 55 percent increase is staggering,” said Orville Bevel of Texans Against Monopolies Excessive Rates (TAMER), an activist group that advocates for water customers.
TAMER – which began as a grassroots group fighting a Monarch rate increase in 2007 – has already started collecting signatures on a petition to protest the rate increase.
In a letter to customers dated May 27, Monarch President Charles W. Profilet, Jr. wrote the increase was because of improvements to the utility.
“Monarch has made significant investments in plant and equipment primarily related to resolving TCEQ compliance issues,” he wrote. “We have improved our customer service offerings, including an IVR bill pay system that allows the customer to check their balances, online bill pay, an improved billing format with more information and a host of other customer based initiatives to improve our efficiency and responsiveness to you.”
Profilet wrote that the increase would come in two stages – the first increase on Aug. 1, 2011 and the second increase on July 1, 2012.
In the 2007 rate case, TAMER and three cities served by Monarch worked out a mediated agreement with the water utility. Part of that agreement was a Blue Ribbon Panel that meets with Monarch four times a year.
Bevel said TAMER agreed to be a part of the panel because “we thought that we might have some influence on a possible rate increase, but we were wrong.”
Pointing out that the actual filing with the TCEQ included a 7-inch high stack of legal documents, Bevel said, “They’ve been working on this for months; the whole time we were working on the Blue Ribbon Panel.”
If TAMER can collect enough signatures on a petition complaining about the increase, a rate case will be referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).
The process, which could take up to two years, includes the following steps: SOAH referral; preliminary hearing; discovery; mediation; evidentiary hearing; and decision.