W.Va. PSC judge hears Habitat's request for exemption from water connection fee

August 20, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- An organization that has led a community-based effort to build homes in the Eastern Panhandle for low-income families wants to be exempt from paying a $3,120 connection fee charged by the Berkeley County Public Service Water District.

In a court-like hearing held Tuesday by the West Virginia Public Service Commission in Martinsburg, Allen R. Means, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the Eastern Panhandle Inc., testified that the not-for-profit organization certainly didn't meet the definition of being a developer.

The ecumenical, Christian-based group completed 26 homes since it was founded in the Eastern Panhandle in 1993 with the support of the development community, donated labor and a commitment of "sweat equity" by the families that qualify to buy the homes, Means said.

Habitat for Humanity filed a complaint with the PSC in February 2008 contending that the water district was improperly attempting to collect a Capacity Improvement Fee from the organization for a home built at 326 Twigg Drive.


Paul S. Fisher, executive director of the water district, responded that the only exemption his agency can provide according to state rules is for an individual seeking a connection of water service to an existing home or a home under construction where the person applying for the exemption would be the "customer of record."

Along with that requirement, Fisher noted the state requires such an exemption only be allowed in a location that is not part of a "previously developed tract."

PSC staff engineer Jonathan Fowler testified on Tuesday that he agreed with that position.

"... As an engineer, I wouldn't exempt anyone" from paying the fee, Fowler said.

In questioning by presiding PSC Administrative Law Judge Keith A. George and Habitat for Humanity attorney Robert W. Trumble, Fowler conceded that the language of state rules needed to be clarified, acknowledging that Habitat for Humanity could technically be the customer of record.

The language that defines what a previously developed tract also was "overly broad," Fowler said.

The lot off Twigg Drive in question was originally part of Fairground Heights, a 181-lot subdivision, and was being eyed for a town house project before it was deeded to Habitat for Humanity in January 2000.

Means agreed that the lot was once part of a for-profit development, but explained that the money repaid to Habitat for Humanity by the families that benefit now goes to build more houses.

Means admitted he only recently realized that the water district also is a nonprofit entity and it returned money collected into what is a customer-supported system.

Fisher testified Tuesday that the water district would not be able to pay off a $20 million bond anticipation note within the seven years as planned. The capacity improvement fees are being collected to help pay off the debt, which was incurred to replace the county's water plant along the Potomac River, among other needed projects.

Fisher anticipated the debt remaining will be rolled over into another bond issue if it is not paid in full. The water district added about 125 new customers per month from 2003 to 2006, and has since dropped to about 45, Fisher said.

Though he has personally supported Habitat for Humanity, Fisher said water district officials do not want to set a precedent that results in the draining of additional needed money to remain financially solvent.

George gave the attorneys 30 days to submit their briefs on the case before he would make a ruling.

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