PIEDMONT - The petition protesting a proposed 56.75% water rate increase in Piedmont has been found to be valid and the Public Service Commission will proceed with a hearing on whether or not the increase is needed.

By Liz Beavers
lbeavers@newstribune.info
Tribune Managing Editor
PIEDMONT - The petition protesting a proposed 56.75% water rate increase in Piedmont has been found to be valid and the Public Service Commission will proceed with a hearing on whether or not the increase is needed.
The petition protesting the rate hike, which the Piedmont City Council passed on Jan. 14, was filed with the PSC on Feb. 7 and was signed by 99 persons. The Town of Piedmont then filed a motion to dismiss the petition, saying it did not meet the necessary criteria as set by the PSC.
Administrative Law Judge Keith George of the PSC presided over the hearing Tuesday in the Piedmont Legion to determine the validity of the petition, which the Town of Piedmont said included too many invalid signatures.
Only water customers are considered valid signatures, and only one from each customer household is accepted. In addition, petitions must be signed by at least 25 percent of the town’s total water customers.
During the hearing, the two points addressed were: What was the actual number of total water customers when the petition was filed and how many of the signatures met the criteria.
Attorney Chuck Swanson of Steptoe and Johnson, who is representing the Town of Piedmont, called mayor Paula Boggs to testify on behalf of the city.
Boggs testified that, according to the last report she had seen, Piedmont had 273 water customers, which would make the total number of valid signatures needed to be 69.
After going over the list of signatures and deleting those she felt were not valid, Boggs said there were only 61 on the list.
Petitioner Denny Powers, however, maintained that the protest had been based on 261 total customers; a number that had been given to him by the city office.
According to associate clerk Carrie Lewis, who oversees the water department, however, the number of customer “fluctuates every month with people moving in and moving out,” but most recently stays around 271-274.
After further testimony, it was determined that the 261 figure was included in a year-end report filed by Piedmont for the end of fiscal year 2019.
When asked what the count was when the petition was filed, Lewis answered, “In February, it was 273.”
“I’m inclined to say that what we need then is to get to 69 (signatures),” ALJ George said about halfway through the hearing. “As of now, we have 63.”
The ALJ then went over each signature which the town officials had marked as invalid, and ruled whether it was admissible or inadmissible.
The most attention was paid to five signatures by John Amoroso, acting on behalf of the Piedmont Housing Authority.
Powers called Amoroso to the witness stand, and he testified that he had signed the petition as chairman of the Housing Authority board - once for each bill the board is responsible for.
“I actually signed the petition six times,” he said. “I signed once for my residence, and I signed it five times for the Housing Authority. We have five water bills we pay,” he said.
Amoroso also testified that he “did confer with the other members of the board,” but upon questioning by the town’s attorney he noted that he had signed the petition first, then asked the other board members if if was ok.
“I’m not willing to rule the signatures out on some sort of a technicality,” the judge said, ruling that the five signatures on behalf of the Housing Authority would be counted.
“That would bring us up to 69,” he said. “I therefore find this commission has jurisdiction and will proceed with the examination of the utility rates.”
Although the hearing on the rates had already been scheduled for April 24, the judge noted that the town’s attorney had not yet submitted some necessary paperwork and might need more time.
In addition, the Coronavirus threat might force a postponement of the proceedings.
“We will cancel the April hearing and try to get a reasonable schedule set up,” he said.
He also advised Swanson that he could file for interim rate relief on behalf of the city in the meantime.