By Rusty Bradshaw
Attorneys working on the appeal to the EPCOR wastewater rate case and district consolidation order from the Arizona Corporation Commission believe they found a false argument in water utility officials’ arguments to merge the five Northwest Valley sewer districts.
EPCOR officials maintained in their arguments during the rate case and continuing in the appeal that SunCity infrastructure cost would be higher in future years because the pipes and related equipment was older and in need of replacement almost systemwide. Jim Stark, Sun City Home Owners Association Governmental Affairs Committee member, told the SCHOA board during its Feb. 27 meeting that was simply not true.
“Our attorneys did a great job of going through those documents and figures, and discovered that Sun City’s infrastructure costs would actually be lower than the other districts,” he said.
He added SCHOA lawyers filed their latest response last week.
The Arizona Corporation Commission approved last year EPCOR officials’ plans to consolidate the Sun City, Sun City West, Agua Fria, Anthem and Mohave wastewater district, which resulted in the Sun Cities district customers seeing their rates almost double while customers in the other three districts got a rate reduction. EPCOR officials argued that was due to the Sun Cities’ increased need for infrastructure replacement.
“How this will play out in the court is going to be anyone’s guess,” Mr. Stark said.
He believes it may be summer or fall before the court makes a decision on the appeal.
“We stand with Sun City on this,” said Al Gervenack, PORA of Sun City West board member.
Greg Eisert, SCHOA board member and Governmental Affaies Committee chairman, said EPCOR officials were expected to file their answering brief in mid-February.
“There could be other briefs to file after that,” he said.
Sun Cities residents will have an opportunity to provide testimony on an addendum to the wastewater rate case and consolidation decision. EPCOR officials initiated a system improvement benefit program request with the ACC. The SIB will include a surcharge on wastewater bills to fund projected future improvements not already identified in the most recent rate case. Regular wastewater rates reimburse the company for costs already incurred.
Testimony on the SIB will be taken in March, but no specific dates were known at press time.
PORA officials are joining those from SCHOA in stepping up their opposition to increased water rates and consolidation of 11 statewide districts.
EPCOR is the utility that provides water and wastewater services for Sun City West, Sun City and nine other Arizona communities. The Sun City and Sun City West districts are among the oldest and largest served by the utility.
EPCOR officials believe the best way to provide service to their entire service area is to consolidate the 11 districts together into one so everyone can share a “balanced” rate structure. They want to do it in phases over five years.
Not everyone agreed with the ACC decision, which some feel is an indication the agency will grant EPCOR’s consolidation request.
PORA and SCHOA officials believe the merger, if approved, would considerably raise the rates for residents in the Sun Cities and lower the rates for the other districts.
“We believe the cost causers should be the cost payers,” Mr. Gervenack said.
EPCOR will conduct a series of question and answer sessions for residents to present their case and take questions. Two sessions took place Wednesday in Sun City West
Other sessions are 1-3 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. Monday, March 19 in the auditorium at Sundial Recreation Center, 14801 N. 103rd Ave., Sun City; and 1-3 p.m. Thursday, March 15 in the Agua Fria room at Sun City Grand’s Cimarron Recreation Center, 17100 W. Clearview Blvd., Surprise.
These meetings are all listed, along with other information, in flyers enclosed with EPCOR’s monthly water bills.
Many of the districts EPCOR now owns were originally setup as private water companies that were far apart from other communities. But as Arizona has grown, so has the size and complexity of the individual districts.
Six of the water districts are in the Phoenix metropolitan area, four are along the Colorado River Valley and one is in southern Arizona.
The ACC received the water district consolidation application from EPCOR and will receive the first round of written testimony from the utility and others interested in the case March 7.
In the application, the utility has two separate rate increase requests. If there is no consolidation, the average rate in Sun City West would go from $34.97 per month to $42 per month. With the consolidation, the requested rate would increase to $44.95 per month.
Sun City residents, however, would take a much bigger hit. Their basic rate would go from $20.95 to $44.95 permonth with the consolidation. Without the consolidation the requested rate would be $30.14.
Brit Baxter, ACC public utilities manager, said the study will take several months, but the commission should vote on it by the end of the year, and the increase would be spread over a fiveyear period.
Mr. Eisert reminded SCHOA board members and residents attending the Jan. 23 SCHOA board meeting that ACC seats now held by Doug Little and Tom Forese will expire this year and be filled in the Nov. 6, 2018 gubernatorial election.
“It is important that we elect ACC commissioners that have the logical interest of the community at heart,” he said.
Mr. Eisert hopes a forum for ACC candidates will be scheduled close to the election in Sun City as was done two years ago.
“The attendance at that one was a bit light (600 people), it would be nice to see at least 1,500 residents there, since this is such a big issue in the Sun Cities,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Sun City West Reporter Roger Ball contributed to this story.
Rusty Bradshaw can be reached at 623-445-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.