EMILY GUEVARA, email@example.com
Liberty Utilities customers will get a reprieve from proposed rate increases if the Public Utility Commission of Texas grants the company's request to suspend its rate application.
The company announced it would seek to suspend its pending rate change application for Woodmark Sewer and Tall Timbers sewer until further notice.
If approved, this would effectively pause the implementation of the proposed rates for the time being. The first rate increase was slated for Nov. 1.
The announcement came by email Wednesday about 10 minutes before an already scheduled meeting arranged by the city of Tyler to address the proposed rate changes.
The company has proposed rates that would more than triple some East Texas customers' monthly bills for wastewater service by next March.
Liberty Utilities serves almost 3,800 customers in Smith County - about 500 of those in Tyler - through Liberty Woodmark and Liberty Tall Timbers.
It was standing room only at Tyler's Faulkner Park Police Substation, where about 100 people packed into a room for the meeting.
Several local officials were on hand, including Tyler Mayor Martin Heines, Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran and state Rep. Matt Schaefer.
Tables were set up for people to fill out protest forms regarding the rates if they had not already.
Heines said city staff have been engaged with Tall Timbers for many years and feel it has been a difficult issue for the city to resolve.
Schaefer said, "We have made ourselves a very familiar voice in the Office of Public Utility Counsel in the last couple of days."
"I don't have an official role in this process, but I do have a vested interest in the outcome," he said, adding that he wants to make sure communication is at a maximum.
Schaefer said he is pleased the Office of Public Utility Counsel is going to intervene in the case on behalf of customers. That office will provide an independent attorney to represent the customers' interests in this case.
"We're (going to) be your voice in Austin as this process moves forward," he said.
Liberty Utilities Arizona/Texas President Matthew Garlick was on hand and addressed the crowd.
Garlick said the company has fewer customers to spread its costs over so the impact is greater. He said the company made upgrades required by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Department of Transportation.
The upgrades include expansions to Liberty Woodmark's wastewater treatment plant and lift station improvements; the removal and relocation of a force main (pressurized main pipe) as required by TxDOT; and the expansion of Liberty Tall Timbers wastewater treatment plant.
Through the proposed rate changes, the company is requesting a total annual revenue increase of about $3 million.
Garlick said they have heard the customers and in response they plan to have two town hall meetings, one for customers in the city and one for those in the county. These have yet to be scheduled, but are expected to be held in early October. Information will be posted on Liberty Utilities website.
During these town hall meetings, the company plans to share about the investments they have made in their wastewater systems as well as hear from local customers.
He said it is possible the company could create a phase-in plan where the rates would be increased more gradually over time.
"What we got today is exactly what we expected responsewise," Garlick said, adding that the work they did to the utility was in the best interest of the customers. "We should have done a much better job of our public outreach."
Customer Eldon McCurley, a Liberty Utilities customer who lives in the county, called the proposed rate change absolutely ridiculous.
"When the sewer costs more than fresh water, there's something wrong with that picture," he said, adding that he is concerned about the effect this will have on property values and home sales. "It's going to hurt the whole economy in that area."
A CLOSER LOOK
n Liberty Utilities will seek to suspend its pending rate change application for Woodmark Sewer and Tall Timbers Sewer until further notice.
n If the Public Utility Commission of Texas grants the company's suspension request, this would effectively pause the implementation of the proposed rates for the time being. The first rate increase was slated for Nov. 1.
n Liberty Utilities plans to have two yet-to-be-scheduled town hall meetings for Tyler and Smith County customers in early October.
n A previously scheduled locally organized town hall for Smith County customers on Oct. 4 has been canceled.