CPUC gets earful from irate Claremont customers

Two public California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) hearings at Taylor Hall were well attended, as a long line of Claremont residents and Golden State ratepayers vented their opinions in an attempt to halt the water company’s effort for another rate increase.

Members of the Claremont City Council, city staff as well as representatives from Golden State Water Company and the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, were among the more than 100 people on December 8 who participated in each of the afternoon and evening hearings. During the course of those two hearings, 40 people testified before the judge.

Administrative Law Judge Rafael L. Lirag, one of two judges assigned to the rate case, provided an overview of the CPUC process before opening the floor to Golden State Water for testimony regarding their application.

“The company has a fairly aggressive capital additions request, with over $96 million dedicated to Region 3 during the three-year cycle,” explained Keith Switzer, vice president of regulatory affairs for Golden State Water Company.

In Claremont, Golden State has planned $20 million in capital projects with $6 million earmarked for drilling a new well at the Pomello site and installing a booster station, as well as treating an existing station to bring it back into service, he said.

Also included in that application is a new tier structure for residential customers—increasing from three to four tiers.

“One of the things I’d like to emphasize is that the change is not a way to enhance our revenues,” explained Mr. Switzer, who was immediately heckled by the afternoon crowd but continued with his presentation.

“In setting the tiers in the past, we’ve set the tiers in the same size for all. This time around, we broke it up into two zones. Here in Claremont, your tier will be set with San Dimas and San Gabriel. The mountain desert districts like Barstow, Apple Valley, Morongo Valley, they will have a different set of tiers based on market consumption. The rate will be the same.”

In his address at the 6 p.m. meeting, Mr. Switzer left off his explanation of the tiered rate structure.

Golden State Water Company began the current rate-setting process in July 2014 when they applied for an order to decrease water service rates by 0.50 percent in 2016, only to increase rates by 3.21 percent in 2017; and increase rates again by 3.12 percent in 2018.

Despite the proposed minor decrease in year one, there is little relief in sight for Claremont residents whose water bills continue to rise.

“We have seen increases in our bills from 60 to 70 percent in just the past five years,” City Manager Tony Ramos told Judge Lirag. “It is fundamentally unfair for residents of Claremont to pay significantly more for our water service than the ratepayers in surrounding municipally-involved service areas. I implore you to analyze this rate application with its impact on ratepayers and take into consideration the concerns of this community.”

This isn’t Claremont’s first battle with Golden State Water over its requested rate increases, nor is it the first time the city and its residents have rallied against it.

In July 2011, Golden State filed a rate case application with the CPUC, holding a public hearing at Taylor Hall that same December with Judge Richard Smith hearing five hours of testimony from 100 disgruntled Claremont customers.

Despite ratepayers’ outrage, the CPUC granted Golden State the increases they sought for 2013-2015, including a 15.6 percent in 2013 with smaller increases of 2.7 percent in 2014 and 1.8 percent in 2015 in just under two years.

Many residents have grown disillusioned with the CPUC and are now questioning the commission’s ability to regulate privately-owned utilities to ensure rates are reasonable for customers.

“The PUC has truly failed in their efforts and their mission statement to us, the consumers,” said Claremont resident Bill Buehler. “We came here three years ago and went through the same thing and got an immense raise in our water rates. Please do a little more homework than the last judge.”

The Office of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent arm of the CPUC, created by the legislature to represent the interests of all utility customers throughout the state, will review the application and is expected to release their recommendations in March 2015.

The Administrative Law Judges assigned to the case will submit a draft decision to Commissioner Michael Picker, who is expected to make a final decision within the next 18 months, however, the timeline is unclear.

Those unable to attend the public hearing may still file a formal protest with the CPUC by submitting written comments, referencing Golden State Water’s Application No. A1407006 to: CPUC Public Advisor, 505 Van Ness Ave., Room 2103, San Francisco, CA 94102, or by email to public.advisor@cpuc.ca.gov.

—Angela Bailey



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