Residents in Hull, Hingham and Cohasset are asking state lawmakers to give the attorney general the power to intervene on their behalf in fighting proposed rate hikes from private water companies.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth) and Rep. Garrett Bradley (D-Hingham) is aimed at granting the state’s top law enforcement officer and consumer advocate the same powers she has in other utility rate-setting cases, such as gas and electric cases.
Aquarion Water Company, which provides water to the three South Shore communities as well as Oxford and Millbury, has a rate hike request pending with the Department of Public Utilities.
If Aquarion’s full request is approved by the DPU, Aquarion customers in Hingham, Hull and Cohasset can expect to see an increase of 16.5 percent on their monthly water bill, according to Hedlund’s office.
It would “be a huge benefit” to the towns if the attorney general could get involved, said Hull Town Manager Philip Lemnios. He said help from the attorney general might mitigate large local legal bills.
“We would like the same representation on these utility matters that residents of the commonwealth have on other utility matters,” he said.
Currently, the attorney general’s office has no power to act on a town’s behalf in water rate cases, according to Hedlund. When other utility companies propose rate hikes, the attorney general’s office is authorized to provide legal assistance to the towns.
“The problem is that years ago when the DPU structure was set up, water wasn’t an issue. It was plentiful and it was cheap,” he said. Most water was distributed by municipalities, so there was no need for the attorney general’s office to get involved, he said. Now that has changed in several communities.
Hedlund called Aquarion’s rate hike proposal “the most outrageous one yet.”
“We have no relief,” he said.
Harry Hibbard Jr., vice president of operations for Aquarion, said the company does not object to the attorney general being involved in rate setting, but thinks it would slow down the process.
Both New Hampshire and Connecticut, the two other states where the company operates, have similar laws where a consumer advocate at the state government level oversees the process, he said.
“I should say I believe the Department of Public Utilities does a fine job protecting the consumers’ interests,” Hibbard said. “I don’t have any principal objection to the attorney general’s office getting involved, but process-wise it adds time for a rate request.”
The last time Aquarion asked for a rate hike was in 2008, which was granted by the DPU in 2009, Hibbard said. He said the current rate proposal numbers “speak for themselves.”
Currently, the average water bill of the company’s Cohasset, Hingham and Hull customers is $726 per year, assuming the customers use 62,500 gallons of water per year. The proposed increase would raise that bill by $120, to $846.
“We face escalating costs that undermine our ability to earn a reasonable return for our investors,” he said. “These are challenging times for everyone.”
Lawmakers on Monday sent the bill to the Judiciary Committee to review.