With the rate increases approved for Liberty Utilities customers in Tyler and Smith County, the response from several parties involved in the rate case were, in essence, that it could have been worse.
On Tuesday, a state Administrative Law Judge granted a joint motion that outlined the interim rates for the company’s almost 3,500 customers.
All Tall Timbers and Woodmark customers will see increases over the next three years.
Tall Timbers customers living in Tyler, who currently pay $27.75, will see the highest percentage increases of all the local customers, with a 50 percent increase each year for the next two years, reaching a rate of $65.60 by 2019.
Tall Timbers customers outside of Tyler, who currently pay $54.93, would see a lower percentage increase, with no increase this year, followed by increases for the next two years, reaching the $65.60 rate by 2019.
Woodmark customers would pay the most money outright with current rates at $66.92 and jumping to $90.53 in 2019.
For every customer, though, these rates represent a fraction of the amount Liberty was asking for.
“These lower the revenues and rates by about half of what was initially proposed,” said Michele Gregg, director of external relations at the Office of Public Utility Counsel, which represented the customers’ interests in the case.
Tyler City Manager Ed Broussard agreed saying the interim rates for Tall Timbers customers in Tyler represent a 52 percent reduction from the company’s original request.
Broussard said the city was pleased to reduce the rate that much, and pushed to go lower, but saw that was not going to happen.
The initial proposed rate increase as filed last fall sought to raise the rates for Tall Timbers and Woodmark customers to $96.38 by March of this year.
That would have been an almost 250 percent increase for Tall Timbers customers in Tyler, a 75 percent increase for Tall Timbers customers in Smith County, and a 44 percent increase for Woodmark customers.
As it stands now, those customers will see a 136 percent increase, a 19 percent increase and a 35 percent increase, respectively.
“We understand that any increase is (going to) be a concern to customers, but this represents a reduction that was substantial compared to what the company was initially asking for and that is (going to) be good for customers overall,” Ms. Gregg with the Office of Public Utility Counsel said.
Some customers may question why the parties decided to settle. The parties included Liberty Utilities, the Public Utility Commission, the Office of Public Utility Counsel, the city of Tyler, and a handful of customers.
State Rep. Matt Schaefer, who has been following the case and communicating with state officials about it, but was not a party to it, outlined some of the reasons.
Schaefer wrote had the case proceeded to a hearing as planned, several possibilities, many of them negative for customers, could have transpired.
These include: rates could have been even higher with no gradual phase-in; Tall Timbers and Woodmark rates could have been combined to the detriment of Tall Timbers customers; an additional rate increase could have been requested as early as next year; and Liberty Utilities would have been able to recover all reasonable legal fees.
As it stands, the company’s legal fee recovery is capped at $300,000, much less than it has spent on the case, Schaefer wrote.
All customers will see a surcharge of $3.59 per month per connection for two years or until the $300,000 is recovered.
In addition, the company likely will not be allowed to ask for another rate increase until 2020.
Though the announcement of the rates represents an end of sorts for customers, the process is still going.
The parties to the case are in the process of completing settlement documents and performing the volumetric rate study. This study is to determine if volumetric rates, which would be based, in part, on water usage, would benefit customers.
The parties must file status reports with the administrative law judge every two months starting in October.
For those customers who have questions, the Office of Public Utility Counsel is available to answer them. They can be reached at 512-936-7500.
In addition, Schaefer said he and his office staff are happy to assist customers by answering questions or helping them find the answers.
“I believe there are structural problems with the way these rates are determined and have been, and will continue to pursue changes in the law that would positively affect customers paying these rates,” Schaefer wrote on Facebook.
Liberty Utilities Texas President Matthew Garlick said the company is pleased the judge granted the joint motion.
“We are mindful of the impact that any increase in rates can have on our customers,” he said in an emailed statement. “As such, we made significant efforts to incorporate feedback from our customers, stakeholders, local representatives, regulators and other interested parties in the negotiations of the settlement.”