PUC Regulation and BCWA Rates
Putting the Bristol County Water Authority under the Public Utilities Commission will not necessarily mean lower rates.
When I was elected to the General Assembly, it was not to represent special interests or to get positive headlines in the newspaper. It was to do what is right for all the citizens I represent, and – like them – to be fiscally responsible.
Legislation that would bring the Bristol County Water Authority under the jurisdiction of the Public Utilities Commission may not be as beneficial to BCWA customers as supporters of the bill claim. I am not convinced it will mean any significant improvements for the system or for its water customers. I am certain that it will result in higher costs for water customers, if not just in water rates then in the associated cost of bureaucracy and regulation.
In a letter that I received in early May from Thomas F. Ahern, administrator of the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, he wrote to make me aware “that bringing BCWA under the jurisdiction of the PUC would not necessarily lower rates or reduce the upward pressure on rates that all water utilities are experiencing.”
As part of his correspondence, Mr. Ahern provided a breakdown of residential water bills for PUC regulated utilities, covering the period from January, 2001, to this year.
“During this period of time,” Mr. Ahern said in his letter, “water rates have increased much more than the other utilities we regulate. These increases have been driven by the needs for water system improvements compounded by declining water sales which puts further upward pressure on rates. As a result of recent water legislation that puts further emphasis on conservation and funding of reserve accounts we expect this upward trend in rates to continue.”
From 2001 to this year, the overall increase in rates for the PUC-regulated Kent County Water Authority was 113 percent. Pawtucket water’s increase for the same period was 194 percent and Woonsocket water rates climbed 90 percent during the decade.
Granted, the water authorities regulated by the PUC have neither the highest nor the lowest rates of all water companies in the state of Rhode Island, but most of those utilities regulated by the PUC have been granted “rather significant (Mr. Ahern’s words)” rate increases over the last 10 years.
It is a fact that the BCWA rates are among the highest in the state. It is also a fact that rates of four PUC-regulated water authorities are also among the highest in the state. And the BCWA rates cannot be blamed on “local issues” or current leadership alone, as some have suggested.
Bristol County residents need to remember that a portion of the rates now being charged are to pay for the decision made years ago to build the cross-bay pipeline. That financial encumbrance will not go away simply by allowing the PUC to control the BCWA operation.
It is also a fact that only six water authorities have placed themselves under the PUC, while most of the nearly 200 water authorities in Rhode Island have chosen not to. Granted, many of those are smaller – in customer base – than Bristol County, but size alone should not be a compelling reason to seek more state control and regulation.
Some argue that the PUC would provide more openness and transparency to the operation of the water system. I cannot argue against that. But I can suggest that calling for and implementing changes in the operating charter of the BCWA to ensure more transparency would serve the same purpose while retaining local control.
Already, the town councils from the three member communities name three individuals each to the BCWA board, providing for a truly mixed partisan control. Perhaps adding to that board a member of the town council from each community would provide the kind of accountability citizens want.
Placing the BCWA under the jurisdiction of the PUC is not only about water rates; there are other costs involved – costs that do not now have to be borne by water customers. If the bill is approved, BCWA will face a charge of $90,000 to $100,000 each time it appears before the PUC for a rate adjustment.
I do not question the intent of Rep. Joy Hearn and Rep. Raymond E. Gallison Jr., who introduced House bill 2011-H 5265. I do wonder, however, why this legislation is not supported by resolutions adopted by any, or all, of the covered communities. I do wonder why there is no companion bill introduced by any of the Bristol County State Senators.
Since I have made a commitment to do all that I can as a State Representatives to not add to the financial burdens of the people in my district, I cannot support this legislation.
But again, it is not just about money. I do not believe, as some may claim, that the only way to ensure accountability to the citizens is to place the BCWA under state control. Our communities have local school districts that operate well and that are responsive to the citizens and I don’t believe we want the state running our schools. If there are real or perceived problems with the BCWA, let’s fix those locally before we cost ourselves more and give up all control to the state.
Rep. Jan P. Malik (Barrington-Warren)
Following is information from the PUC regarding residential water bills for PUC-regulated water utilities from January, 2001, to January, 2011:
|Water System||Jan. 2001||Jan. 2006||Jan. 2011||Overall|