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Tue, Oct. 22

Wilhoit Water customers may get rate hike: Recommended 20 percent increase would go toward arsenic treatment

CHINO VALLEY - Arizona Corporation Commission staffers are recommending a 20-percent rate increase for the 150-plus customers of Wilhoit Water Co.-Yavapai Estates in order to treat the company's two arsenic-tainted wells on Chino Valley's south side.

Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes, who conducted a public meeting at Chino Valley Town Hall Tuesday night where several disgruntled customers aired their concerns and frustrations with the company's practices, said she hopes arsenic treatment equipment is in place on the wells by the end of the year so residents can get potable water from the system within the next two months.

The company must receive an Approval of Construction from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality for the treatment equipment before it can serve water again.

At present, the City of Prescott - which owns a hydrant several hundred feet away from the wells in question - will continue pumping safe, potable water to affected residents through the end of December ­- and perhaps longer, if necessary.

"The company's goal is to get customers off the City of Prescott water by the end of the year," Mayes said. "They are constructing the remediation equipment now, but it's not connected. A rate case can come after the system is installed."

On Oct. 24, 2006, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality reported that a water sample collected from one of the company's three Chino Valley wells contained arsenic levels of 316 parts per billion, an amount 30 times greater than the Environmental Protection Agency's arsenic standard for drinking water of 10 ppb.

The wells had been serving 95 customers in Yavapai Estates, a subdivision south of Road 3 South and east of Highway 89; 65 units in Antelope Valley Apartments on 1555 S. Highway 89; and the popular Bonn-Fire Restaurant on 1667 S. Highway 89.

Under its agreement with ADEQ early this year, Wilhoit Water Co. agreed to buy costly arsenic remediation equipment to treat the contaminated water.

Mayes said the 20 percent fee increase, which none of the small contingent of customers at the meeting objected to, would include a $4.78 per month surcharge per customer to pay off a localized arsenic treatment plant at the wells' source.

However, Wilhoit Water Co. owner David Conlin is seeking a 46.8 percent rate increase to offset the company's ballooning deficits, which customers strongly oppose.

Most customers contend that the company has had ample time and opportunity to upgrade its system's contaminated wells and fix customers' old water meters, which they say give inaccurate readings that don't reflect the true amount of money they should pay on their monthly bills.

Customers also said their bills do not reflect the amount of water they are using and the company either charges too much or not enough, with bill amounts varying throughout the subdivision.

"Why should the town pay for his mistakes (with handling this arsenic problem)?" said resident Tom Bernhagen, who lives in Yavapai Estates. "If he's a bad businessman, let him pay for it."

Pat Clingman, a town employee who also resides in Yavapai Estates, said she's opposed to the company's proposed rate increase because of the large number of senior citizens in the community who live on fixed incomes.

She said it has not mattered whether or not she was at home most of the month using water - her bill has fluctuated.

During her 10 years in the subdivision, Clingman said she has never had a bill less than $25.

"My bill did not go down when I was not there," she said. "I had a $75 bill in February and a $28 bill this month."

Mayes said Corporation Commission staffers report that the company is not charging its larger commercial users the right rate, which has contributed to the problem.

"Those revenues are not going to the company and are not benefiting the system's infrastructure," she said. "One person should not be charged differently than another. Staff recommends an inverted rate structure, which charges those who use the least water the least amount of money."

The arsenic contamination, however, most troubles Clingman.

"I was and I am furious that it was OK to feed my family with this water," she said.

Neither Conlin nor any other representative of the company was present at Tuesday's meeting. Nevertheless, Mayes took the feedback from the gathering back to the commission for its review.

The commission could either conduct a public hearing or move directly to a vote at one of its meetings early next year about whether to approve a rate increase. If no hearing occurs, Mayes said an administrative law judge will review the case and make his or her own determination.

If a hearing takes place, the commission will notify all of the company's customers in case they want to attend.

"Wilhoit Water Co.-Yavapai Estates has not been in compliance with ADWR (Arizona Department of Water Resources) and ADEQ regulations and it has not paid its county property taxes," Mayes told the audience, which included Chino Valley Mayor Karen Fann, councilman Ron Romley, Town Manager Bill Pupo and Water Resource Director Mark Holmes. "We aim to turn this company around and make it one that serves its customers properly."

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