Aquarion defends rate increase to selectmen

drinking waterGreenwich residents are looking at a more than 20% increase in water rates over the next three years, and representatives from the Aquarion Water Co. came before the Board of Selectmen last week to explain why.

The request, which goes to the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) for approval, has a 16.8% increase in the first year and in each of the two years after another 2% increase. First Selectman Peter Tesei said that “given the magnitude of the impact to our residents who are Aquarion customers,” he felt it was appropriate to invite representatives from the company to appear. Bruce Silverstone, the company’s vice president of corporate communications, and George Logan, director of engineering and planning, represented the company.

Mr. Silverstone said this was being done because of recent improvements to the company’s infrastructure, an investment that has not been inexpensive — he put the price tag at $143 million. The last rate increase came three years ago.

“These investments are vital to providing quality water to our customers and have been made in key areas like water mains, storage tanks, treatment plant upgrades, dam upgrades, and enhanced pump stations,” Mr. Silverstone said. “Our customers are currently receiving the benefits from these important infrastructure investments and improvements. So we’re asking for the rate increase to pay for the investments that have already been made. This is not for future investment.”

He added that he realized customers were not happy to hear about the increase but that this was necessary to pay for the improvements and “maintain a modern and reliable water infrastructure system consistent with the increasing health and environmental regulatory standards.”

“We are sensitive,” Mr. Silverstone said. “We know that this is perhaps at a time when customers are struggling to pay their other bills and their other utility costs. But I need to tell you that we have worked hard to contain costs and streamline our operations. We have filed a rate application that addresses the company’s needs while remaining sensitive to the economic realities our customers face.”

Breaking down the numbers, Mr. Silverstone said he understood the amount seemed large but it came to about 24 more cents a day for customers.

“A lot of people will say, ‘Water is free, so what’s the deal?’ but I’ll say we’re providing a service,” Mr. Silverstone said. “The water might be free, but the service is the maintenance and delivery of 3,000 miles of infrastructure and the pump stations and the treatment plants so we’re bringing clean, pure water into homes. We have millions and millions of opportunities to fail every day as people flush their toilets and wash their dishes and turn their taps on, and we generally don’t fail.”

Getting a rate increase like this is an approximately six-month process, according to Mr. Silverstone. Within the next 60 days, PURA will set up public meetings throughout Aquarion’s service area where customers may come and express their feelings on the proposed increase for the public record. Aquarion will be able to state its case before a PURA hearing in New Britain, but a date for that has not been set. After the process is complete, PURA will decide if the rate increase will be approved.

Selectman Drew Marzullo expressed concern that customers would be surprised by their bills suddenly going up if the increase was approved, and Mr. Silverstone pledged that if there is an increase all customers will receive advance notice. He said letters would also be sent out about the public hearings and the public would be invited to attend.

“I think people are also going to talk about Aquarion’s profit margin,” Mr. Marzullo said. “I only say this because when you juggle routine maintenance versus new infrastructure initiatives or whatever, here in Greenwich specifically people are going to want to know what they’re getting for that.”

Mr. Tesei echoed that in his questions.

“Your efforts here are valid and I’m glad it’s working out, but if people could have a better understanding of our infrastructure then I think it would be a big help,” Mr. Tesei said.

Mr. Silverstone noted the improvements again and said he believed “the community is getting a lot,” including projects yet to be announced as well as a “state of the art” water treatment plant in Hartford. Mr. Tesei said he visited the plant and that it was “eye opening” to see how it was coming along. More specifics about the town’s infrastructure with Aquarion and how it will benefit from improvements is expected to be brought to a future selectmen meeting.

“I’d like to see some of these questions up so they can be talked about at a later date,” Mr. Tesei said.

Mr. Tesei acknowledged the company’s “quality drinking water and a reliable water supply” throughout 47 communities in the state and the $143 million in infrastructure improvements. Mr. Silverstone also pointed to the ways the company has worked with the community, such as its support of the Cos Cob Fire Police Patrol Inc., both financially and through use of one of its vehicles, as well as working with Greenwich Community Gardens and financial support for Kids in Crisis and the YMCA.

Mr. Marzullo brought up the fire in Old Greenwich last October during Hurricane Sandy that could, without the efforts of the Greenwich Fire Department at the peak of the storm, have conceivably taken out dozens of homes. While the condition of the pipes in that area of town was not considered an issue when fighting the fire, they are thought to be in need of replacement, and Mr. Marzullo wanted to know if this was going to be done as part of the improvements.

Mr. Silverstone said it was, and later in the meeting, the selectmen unanimously approved a traffic detour plan for the work that will happen in Old Greenwich.


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