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RALEIGH — Attorney General Roy Cooper has filed an appeal in an attempt to stop Cary-based utility company Aqua from raising rates without public hearings.
Aqua lists diverse local communities such as Wakefield Estates and Wakefield Plantation as well as Hasentree and Willow Creek in Wake County and Lakes of Rolesville, Garrett Ridge, Sweet Briar and Woodford in Franklin County as part of its service area.
“Consumers deserve quality water at a fair price and they deserve a chance to weigh in when a utility wants a rate hike,” Cooper wrote in a press release. “The Utilities Commission should have all information before making a decision to raise rates.”
Under state law, regulated utilities such as Aqua typically have to seek Utilities Commission approval before increasing the rates customers pay. That process includes public hearings and the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division can participate to ensure consumers’ views are taken into consideration.
Earlier this year, however, the N.C. Utilities Commission adopted a provision that would allow Aqua, the state’s largest private water utility serving customers in 52 counties, to raise future rates automatically without holding public hearings.
This accelerated approval process for rate hikes means the Attorney General and other parties would not have the opportunity to cross examine the utility’s witnesses, Cooper said.
In the notice of appeal, the Attorney General’s office argues that Aqua has sought multiple rate increases in recent years and has raised rates “substantially.”
However, the appeal notes that the rate increases that were approved after review were much lower than Aqua claimed was needed. For example, the Attorney General’s office showed that the most recent rate increase sought by Aqua was for a 19.15 percent increase in annual revenues. After routine investigation, Aqua agreed to a 5.2 percent increase.
The Utility Commission has put a 5 percent annual revenue increase cap on the rate increases Aqua would be allowed. However, Cooper’s office argues the move remains unlawful and not in the public interest as there is no “concrete or guaranteed” benefit to the public.
A main reason the Commission allowed the automatic rate increase was to “incentivize Aqua to improve water quality,” said the appeal. But, Cooper argues, the Commission already has the legal authority to require Aqua to do that.
Cooper’s office filed its notice of appeal just before the Independence Day holiday and will file its full appeal with the N.C. Supreme Court in the coming months.