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December 5, 2012

Nichols chairs meeting to address rising water, sewer rates

ATHENS — Third District State Sen. Robert Nichols chaired a Senate Natural Resources subcommittee meeting last week to address rising water and sewer rates from investor-owned utilities.

Two Henderson County residents were in Austin to take part in the discussions concerning rapidly-escalating rates for Texans living in rural and unincorperated areas of the state. Nichols is charged with making policy recommendations regarding the rates.

“The many stakeholders working with the subcommittee have helped us to determine that the current regulatory system is broken,” Nichols said. “The one-size-fits-all treatment of large, mid and small-sized utilities does not work.”

The subcommittee proposes that rate jurisdiction of water and waste water be moved from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the Public Utilities Commission.

The workgroup has reached this conclusion for two primary reasons:

• the PUC's structure and expertise are focused on fair and efficient rate-related regulation.

• transfer of the responsibility from TCEQ to PUC offers potential benefits by aligning most state utility regulation within one agency.

Henderson County resident and Texans Against Monopolies' Excessive Rates chairman Orville R. Bevel, Jr. of Chandler, testified at the meeting.

“TAMER heartily supports the transfer of the regulation of water and sewer utilities to the PUC,” Bevel said. “We also support giving the Office of Public Utility Counsel a role in the water and sewer regulation. We do not believe that water and sewer ratemaking is a function of  environmental regulation.”

OPUC helps electric and telecommunication customers by providing them with representation, and interceding on their behalf. It is the subcommittee's proposal that OPUC also come to represent water ratepayers who currently only have access to the Office of Public Interest Counsel to answer basic procedural questions regarding TCEQ.

Nichols said the PUC's mission is to protect customers, foster competition and promote high-quality infrastructure, whereas TCEQ's mission is to protect our state's public health and natural resources.

Considering that PUC currently regulates the state's electric and telecommunication utilities, it would be a relatively seamless transition to transfer water-rate regulation to their purview as well. This would take advantage of PUC's regulatory focus, while also allowing TCEQ to better focus on its core mission of ensuring environmental equality.

“It is vital that ratepayers have legitimate customer representation to stand on their behalf,” Nichols said. “A transfer to OPUC will ensure this occurs."

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