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New bill has water companies opening their books to public

Golden State Water Company announced Tuesday its endorsement of Senate Bill 1364 to give ratepayers more involvement in the water rate adjustment process.

California Senator Bob Huff introduced Senate Bill 1364 with the goal of requiring water companies and agencies to be subject to the same review and audit process as other public utilities. The bill has been sponsored and supported by the city of Claremont, among others.

In announcing to their added support of the bill, Golden State officials say they will continue to work toward enhanced company accessibility with its customers and stakeholders.  

“We believe greater transparency throughout the water industry is a positive reform to help people understand what we invest to maintain our systems and the corresponding value to customers,” said Denise Kruger, Golden State Water’s senior vice president for regulated utilities, in a news release. “This legislation gives customers more information so they can see exactly what they’re getting when they pay a water bill.”

According to the bill’s language, SB 1364 would give the public access to “inspect the accounts, books, papers, and documents of any business that is a subsidiary or affiliate of, or a corporation that holds a controlling interest in, a water corporation.”

Proposed changes include requiring utility companies to send customers notification about rate increases, if approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). They will also ensure that those served by private water companies are provided with information about a general rate case necessary to protect them from regularly rising water rates.

“This bill really addresses the sheer frustration that we have with our water company,” said Councilmember Sam Pedroza in a recent interview, adding, “CPUC, the organization that ought to be keeping a check on our rates, isn’t doing their job. That’s what this bill is intended to do.”

Under the new bill, Golden State Water and other public utilities can be subjected to a public review at any time. The company is currently subject to an extensive audit by the CPUC every 3 years as part of the general rate application to change the price of the water it provides to its customers.

“[SB 1364] enhances the transparency that already exists in our ratemaking process through the CPUC,” said Patrick Scanlon, vice president of water operations. “Any customer can become part of that process. The company is always available to sit down with customers or stakeholders and explain the application and the reasons why water rates are increasing.”

Others within the city of Claremont are unconvinced by the support. Hal Hargrave of Claremonters Against Outrageous Water Rates calls Golden State’s claim for transparency “laughable,” a spin created by Randle Communications, a public relations firm hired by the water company. Mr. Hargrave said he was left unamused after a meeting with Golden State and city officials in late February, and still doesn’t feel ratepayers have answers to their questions.

“This was a meeting arranged by GSW so that they could communicate more effectively with their customers. What did GSW do…they brought in the hired spin machine, Randle Communications, to communicate on their behalf,” he said. “Our high rates are going to continue to support their outrageous salaries, profits and, yes, spin artists in an attempt to confuse the ratepayers...Transparency I think not. Spin, I think yes.”

Golden State representatives maintain that the company already goes through an extensive independent audit through the CPUC. These documents can be viewed at any time, according to Mr. Scanlon. The company added that it does recognize the challenges in meeting the concerns and needs of both its customers and its own staff.

“As costs continue to rise at both the wholesale and retail level, compounded with costs to replace and repair aging water systems, our customers have been very clear about their concerns with higher rates,” wrote Ms. Kruger in a column published in the COURIER last Saturday, May 19.

Ms. Kruger alluded to other water principals making the news as of late. Three Valleys Municipal Water District—the overseeing provider for agencies in the eastern San Gabriel Valley such as Golden State—has been making headlines over the past several weeks, as an agency-approved parcel tax may increase next year from $18.54 to $20.46. An initial vote was approved last month with a final vote to be taken in June.  

Moreover, Three Valleys will also be increasing costs for water provided to retail agencies, like Golden State. The price will now be $3 surcharge per acre-foot.

At the same time as Golden State Water moves forward with its plan to endorse SB 1364, the city of Claremont continues on with its 3-pronged approach to contain the community’s rising frustration and escalating water rates: legislation, fighting rate increases and a potential acquisition of its water system from Golden State, which was discussed in closed session at last night’s city council meeting.   

In response to Golden State’s endorsement of SB 1364: “The more transparent Golden State Water is, the better it is for our community,” said Mayor Larry Schroeder.

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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