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Water rate deal may come Tuesday

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Public Service Commission and West Virginia American Water are likely to announce an agreement on a water rate increase Tuesday morning.

The PSC began holding four days of scheduled hearings Monday about a proposed 21 percent rate increase requested by West Virginia American Water. The increase would impact about 250,000 families in the state.

West Virginia American Water customers who use 4,500 gallons of water a month would see their monthly bill raised by $10.49, from $50.50 to $60.99, according to a statement released last month by the West Virginia chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, which opposes the request.

A "joint stipulation" agreement between the PSC and the water company is likely to be announced Tuesday morning, according to Susan Small, director of communications for the PSC, and Byron L. Harris, director of the PSC's Consumer Advocate Division.

The details of the agreement were not available Monday. The PSC often allows utilities to raise rates by a smaller amount than the utility requested.

Today's hearing will begin at 9 a.m. at the PSC building on Quarrier Street in downtown Charleston.

Discussions before the three-member PSC on Monday focused on disagreements between the company and the Utility Workers Union of America over issues including the number of employees hired and employee benefits.

Gregory Lanham, president of the UWUA's Huntington District, testified that West Virginia American Water has dropped down to 260 employees.

In March 2011, an agreement between the PSC and West Virginia American Water said the company would have 316 employees.

"We are backed up on our work," Lanham said. "Many of our pipes are 100 years old."

Today, workers often clamp pipes as a temporary fix for leaks, Lanham said. "For the most part, we are not told to put new pipes in."

Kim Bonnettee, a field service representative at West Virginia American Water who often visits customers, criticized how company employees are supervised during her testimony on Monday.

"They are relying on computer software to determine where we work. I am only doing two-thirds of the work I did before. Our workforce is not efficient, not productive."

Scott Strauss, a lawyer for the union, questioned Jeffrey L. McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, a subsidiary of American Water, about the details of the company's employment plans.

McIntyre testified West Virginia American Water has 279 employees.

The last time the company had 316 employees, Strauss said, was back in December 2009.

"A reduction of the head count," McIntyre said, "does not lead directly to lower service quality.... Our customer satisfaction levels remain up."

West Virginia American Water serves 581,000 customers in areas including the Kanawha Valley, as well as Boone, Cabell, Logan, Mercer and Fayette counties and in areas up to Weston and Webster Springs. It is the largest investor-owned water utility in the state.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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