Some Kanawha County residents said they may soon be tapped out from using their taps and priced out of power.
“We don’t even wash our own cars at our house right now, because of the water bills,” Diana Arden said. “And my concern is, where do we get to the point that we just turn off our water and we don’t use our water, or we use gas, instead of using the power, and use our generators?”
Arden was one of roughly 50 residents — mostly older people — gathered at South Charleston’s LaBelle Theatre Wednesday night for a public hearing to discuss requested rate increases by West Virginia American Water and Appalachian Power.
In December, Appalachian Power — a subsidiary of American Electric Power — submitted a proposal to the West Virginia Public Service Commission to increase annual revenue by nearly $50 million, done by way of average monthly bill hikes of $5.26 for residential customers, $12.37 for commercial customers and $5,686 for industrial customers.
The numbers represent increases of 3.71%, 3.52% and 2.92%, respectively. The company said the increases would bring rates into alignment with infrastructure upgrade costs more gradually than what the utilities would ask for in a base rate case.
Last month, West Virginia American proposed water and wastewater rate increases that would result in a bill increase of $11.26 per month for the average residential water customer. The change would result in an additional revenue of $40.8 million.
The proposed water increases follow a 15% rate increase in 2016 and a 14% rate increase in 2019.
The new increases, while appearing minor to some, would push some utility bills into a territory many West Virginians say they cannot afford.
Pam Nixon, a South Charleston resident, said the rate increase is troubling when income increases are few and far between.
“Anybody who is on a fixed income, we have to budget for our water, our electric, our house payment, our rental insurance, maintenance on our cars,” Nixon said. “All of that comes out of our money. I haven’t gotten a 10% increase in my salary, or maybe not even a 3% increase.”
Jamie Pierce, a Dunbar resident, was laid off from her job in the automotive industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently in her 40s, Pierce opted to return to school, in hopes of securing better employment.
“My husband’s the only one working in the home. Thank God, our house is paid for, but we still have 20-some years to work before we’re at your age and retired, if we can even retire,” Pierce said as she gestured toward the crowd.
“This is really going to hurt us. I may even have to drop out of school, just for this little bit of a hike, because we’re only living on one income with our children in the home. It’s not just hurting the elderly population, it’s hurting everybody.”
Gregory Winter voiced frustration with the process, as well, expressing his belief that utility companies are asking for rate hikes because of negligence.
“I say enough is enough,” Winter said. “Year after year after year, every utility company says, ‘We need a raise. We need a raise to fix our water lines that are leaking. We need a raise to cut the trees off our power lines.’ Well, this is abuse by the water company and the power companies for years.”
“If they would trim their trees every year, like they’re supposed to, we wouldn’t have power outages all the time,” Winter said, to applause.
Winter spoke about a time when he returned home from a trip to find that his water tank had busted — an expense he was on the hook for.
“They don’t pay for our damage to our homes,” Winter said. “Why should we have to pay for their damage every time they turn around and abuse it?”
Charleston resident Rose Lowther said, “It’s too much, and this is totally the wrong time for the people in this area.”
The public hearing was hosted by Kanawha County lawmakers, with Democrat Delegates Doug Skaff, Kayla Young, Mike Pushkin and Jim Barach in attendance. Skaff is the president of HD Media, parent company of the Charleston Gazette- Mail.