Attendance low at ICC hearing on water rates

Attendance low at ICC hearing on water rates

CHAMPAIGN – For the Illinois American Water Co. officials who had to defend the utility's 34.7 percent rate increase request at a public hearing, it could have been worse.

There was plenty of criticism Thursday night, but not many critics.

Only about 30 people attended the Illinois Commerce Commission hearing on the pending rate increase, held at Parkland College, and about one-third of them were water company employees. Eight people spoke about the proposed rate increase, and all were opposed.

ICC hearing officer Robert Bensko apologized at the outset of the hearing. The session originally had been scheduled for the Champaign City Building, but the state government's financial situation is so poor, he said, that the commerce commission could not afford the $35 per hour rental fee. He moved the hearing to Parkland, which provided a room at no cost.

"I just do not have the money to pay for anything," Bensko said. "The governor isn't kidding when he says that the state is in dire straits."

If the current Illinois American rate request is permitted, rates in its Champaign district would increase to $41.67 a month, a $10.74 per month increase, according to Barry Suits, the local operations manager.

"The largest component of our rate case in Champaign involves more than $35.2 million of investment in pipes, pumps and treatment facilities that we have made or plan to make in this district," Suits said. "Significant investment is the primary driver for our rates nationwide. The U.S. EPA estimates that $335 billion are needed to be invested in the nation's water infrastructure over the next 20 years."

He said Illinois American's plans to continually update its system "helps us avoid the kind of crisis the EPA is addressing."

Illinois American President Karla Teasley said, in fact, that the water company now anticipates asking for a rate increase every two years to keep up with infrastructure maintenance.

"Part of that is to avoid rate shock," she said. "Part of that is to avoid going for extended periods of time and having large rate increases."

The current rate increase was filed less than a year after Illinois American was given a 47.2 percent rate increase.

But consumers who spoke at the hearing were skeptical. Many said they believed the rate increase is to benefit the company's shareholders, not its customers.

"If the water company gets this increase, the combined increase would be over 80 percent," said Nancy Dietrich of Urbana. "Now I can't imagine what would happen if a government entity decided to raise its rates on anything by 81 percent. If this company can't pay for a water treatment plant and cover its expenses with the rate increase from last year, I think it has a serious problem. Aren't businesses supposed to be more efficient than this?"

She said the rate increase "is about profits for shareholders."

Ora Baer II of Champaign said the water company knows it "has a captive customer base that really has very little say about the rates, and the only one protecting the ratepayers is the commerce commission. And it's about time the commerce commission protected the public.

"Illinois American Water is not acting as a good citizen. It is acting in a predatory capacity and thinks that everyone is Scrooge McDuck with a lot of money in the bank."

Bensko said he had expected a larger turnout at the public hearing – perhaps 75 to 100 people – and said the low attendance may have been because of the move to Parkland. He said five other public rate hearings are scheduled within the water company's territory.

"I guarantee you that the one in Homer Glen and the one in Wheaton, we will fill the rooms," he said.

A decision on the rate case is expected from the five-member commerce commission by April 25.

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