SC Dept. of Consumer Affairs files petition against proposed Blue Granite rate hike
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs has filed a petition in response to a proposal from Blue Granite Water Company asking for a rate increase of up to 56 percent for its customers.
The department said in September it attended a town hall meeting with concerned customers in Clover, South Carolina, where representatives from Blue Granite were on hand along with members of the Office of Regulatory Staff.
Among the concerns, customers reported not being able to drink their water and the inability to water their lawns due to stress on the infrastructure.
“The increase in and of itself, even if we had not attended the meeting back in September would have raised our eyebrows and probably caused us to intervene but having that consumer perspective was kind of the icing on the cake and knowing the company and knowing the history of the company and the issues they have had as well,” said Carrie Grube Lybarker, a consumer advocate for the department.
She said between 2004 and 2018, state law changed, and the department lost its ability to file petitions based on receiving notices of filings at the Public Service Commission that would impact consumer utility rates. Last summer, the department regained its ability to file petitions and said it is the first time it has filed one since regaining the responsibility.
“This particular town hall had a different tone to it so I think as soon as we had attended that we knew the filing was coming down the pipeline and at that point of hearing the consumer concerns we were fairly certain we’d be intervening,” Grube Lybarker said. “Seeing the actual rate increase request solidified that.”
Blue Granite said it has not asked the Public Service Commission for a rate increase since 2017. The latest was implemented in 2018 and if the most recent proposal is approved, customers could see changes to their monthly statements in late 2020.
The company said the majority of the revenue generated by the rate increase would go toward infrastructure and purchased services. Those purchased services, according to the company, consisting primarily of third-party cost increases the company has no control over. Those expenses are incurred from bulk water suppliers and wastewater treatment suppliers.
The “supply charge” Blue Granite pays local municipalities has steadily increased, according to Dave Wilson, a company spokesperson. For the last two years, the company has absorbed those costs without passing them on to customers. The requested rate hike will help offset those costs and allow the company to further invest in new and existing projects, Wilson said.
Since the last rate increase was put in place in 2018, the company has spent $23 on infrastructure projects and improvements. One of those projects involved cleaning up the Friarsgate treatment facility in Irmo and connecting it to the City of Columbia. In doing so, the company said wastewater that was leaking into the Saluda River was stopped.
Still, some Blue Granite customers said the increase is excessive and feel as if the company is making its problem, their problem.
“Every time I flush my toilet now I say, there’s a hundred dollars, there’s a hundred dollars,” said Michelle Carpenter. “Seniors shouldn’t have to decide if they’re going to buy medicine or pay their sewage.”
Carpenter is forming a Facebook page, “Citizens Against Blue Granite,” for people interested in learning more about taking a stance against the rate increases.
“Don’t pass the cost to us just because you can’t do what you’re supposed to do, that’s not our fault,” she said.
The Public Service Commission is expected to take up the issue in February or March of 2020. If it grants the Department of Consumer Affairs petition, it will allow for expert testimony to take place during the hearing.
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