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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

‘Electric charge for water exorbitant, overkill’

Community members who attended yesterday’s public hearing on the petitions filed by the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. to increase its rates conveyed a unified sentiment of strong opposition to the proposals.

On the Commonwealth Public Utilities Commission’s table for action is a revised “2013 Electric Rate Application” that primarily includes a recommendation to increase the electric charge for water and wastewater in order to fund the revenue requirements of CUC, among other components of the rate plan.

The morning’s presentations focused on the specifics of the rate proposal. CPUC dedicated the afternoon to public comments.

Less than 10 people were in attendance, in addition to officials and representatives of CUC, CPUC; the commission’s consultant, Georgetown Consulting Services; and CUC’s consultant, Economists.com.

One of those who spoke out against CUC’s proposed rate hikes was Patrick Leon Guerrero, CUC’s former chief of operation for 14 years. In his oral testimony, he described the CUC rate and non-rate fees as “excessive.”He also urged the CPUC to investigate the formula used by CUC in its calculations as he believes that what CUC is using probably does not accurately reflect everyone’s utility consumption.

Leon Guerrero said there should be local stakeholders at the top management of CUC because whatever these officials decide will impact their families and relatives, alluding to the current crop of CUC executives who are mostly from outside the CNMI.

“They have to be more concerned to make sure everything is efficient [at CUC],” he said.

Former governor and former hospital CEO Juan N. Babauta shared his personal experience with CUC to make a point. He said he just received his monthly water bill amounting to $47.80. In examining his bill, he said he was assessed $9.70 for his actual water usage. He was surprised, however, to find out that CUC is charging him $27.28 for the “electric charge” for water.

“I want to know how CUC came up with this calculation, which for me is kind of overkill,” said Babauta, describing CUC’s formula as “not proportionate.”

Former lawmaker Stanley Torres also shared his disappointment with CUC, claiming that from a monthly water billing of only 8,000 gallons of water, he had seen this jump to 11,000 gallons to 22,000 gallons just for a month. He said his electric charge for water is “truly unacceptable.” He disclosed plan to file a dispute with CUC, copies of which will be furnished to CPUC.

Adding to the former lawmaker’s dismay is the fact that “I have never ever received 24-hour water service from CUC since the start.” Torres lives on Capital Hill.

Juan Cabrera, who was not allowed to ask CUC officials directly at the public hearing—pursuant to the commission guidelines—lambasted the hearing officer and CUC.

“Enough is enough! What you’re doing to the people is wrong! You guys are charging too much!” he said.

Cabrera also criticized the fees being paid by both the commission and CUC to their respective consultants.

Cabrera later told Saipan Tribune that he just wanted to point out at the hearing that “CUC should find other ways first before it thinks about raising charges.” In his prepared testimony, Cabrera claimed that the availability of some untapped CIP monies could be used by CUC to meet its requirements.

Felipe Atalig also spoke out against the proposed rate hike. Like previous speakers, he blamed CUC’s problems on its existing structure. He called on the CPUC to look at CUC’s books and raised the idea of giving CUC its independence as a government instrumentality.

Decision

CPUC chair Joseph Guerrero told Saipan Tribune yesterday that the commission is still in the public comment stage and assured that all testimonies will be filed for public information.

“Nothing is final yet until the commission decides and approves part or all or none of the recommendations. We’re still in the public comment process and once all recommendations and testimonies are gathered, these will all be published by CPUC,” he said.

He also assured the public of the commission’s transparency.

Asked when a decision can be reached on the proposed rate plan, Guerrero said this may happen within the month or in early January 2014.

“We’re holding all consultants, experts, and CUC accountable for the results and the figures they’re presenting. At any time, if there is discrepancy in the figures, CPUC always reserves the right to question them later. CUC is non-profit and anytime they overcollect, the CPUC’s duty is to credit the customers back,” said Guerrero.

He admitted to feeling some pressure “to decide what’s the right thing to do” for the CNMI people.

“Yes, there’s pressure [personally] to do the right thing and using my background and training to really look at all information, I will use my best judgment. My motive is to find a balance—having the lowest rates possible at the best service for all customers,” he added.

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