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Hearings set on proposed Berkeley Co. sewer rate increase

December 12, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A slumping economy, tougher pollution controls for Chesapeake Bay cleanup and a pending lawsuit are threatening to increase the rates that will be paid by about 19,000 customers of the Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District.

Two public hearings will be held this week by the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC) to collect comments about the sewer district's request to increase sewer rates by 12.26 percent.

The hearings will be Monday at 7 p.m. and Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. in the Martinsburg City Council chambers at 232 N. Queen St.

The sewer district in April 2009 asked for the rate increase to go into effect May 11, 2009, to counter "a rapid deterioration of its financial condition due to reduced water usage and a rising delinquency rate," according to documents filed with the PSC.

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The sewer district's financial health deteriorated between the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009 as the economy declined further, according to district officials.

There were 19,064 customers that were billed for the district's services as of June 30, 2009, according to attorney William F. Rohrbaugh, the utility's general counsel.

On Thursday, sewer district general manager Curtis Keller told the Berkeley County Commission that sewer rates might have to be increased by another 18 percent if pending challenges of the district's Capacity Improvement Fees (CIF) are successful.

In challenges now pending before both the PSC and in Berkeley County Circuit Court, an attorney for Larry V. Faircloth Realty Inc. is arguing the sewer district has no authority to charge developers with such a fee because the county does not have a comprehensive zoning ordinance in place, according to court records.

"Since Berkeley County has not adopted a zoning ordinance, neither (the) Water District nor (the) Sewer District has statutory authority under the Local Powers Act to assess capacity improvement fees or impact fees," Laura Faircloth, Larry V. Faircloth's husband, said in a complaint she filed. Faircloth noted the combined fee from both utilities now is $6,770 per residential building lot.

Citing state law, Rohrbaugh has countered in documents filed with the PSC that the state panel has the "power to enforce, originate, establish, change and promulgate tariffs, rates, joint rates, tolls and schedules for all public utilities," a provision that grants broad rate-making authority to the PSC to establish utility tariffs, including capacity improvement fees.

Keller told the commissioners he expected the PSC to make a decision on the case now that legal briefs on both sides have been filed.

Aside from the litigation and slumping economy, Keller has said rate increases could jump by 40 percent or more if the sewer district is unable to get help for implementing federally mandated waste treatment standards put in place to clean up Chesapeake Bay.

Keller told the commissioners that a coalition of Eastern Panhandle utility officials are "pushing as much as we can" to raise awareness statewide about more stringent requirements that are being put in place in the bay's watershed.

Rivers and streams in West Virginia's eight easternmost counties are part of the bay watershed, which stretches across more than 64,000 square miles into parts of five other states -- Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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