BLUE MOUND -- When Mayor Alan Hooks learned that the privately owned company that provides his city with water wanted to pump up its rates by about 36 percent, he got steamed.
Residents of Blue Mound -- a small, blue-collar community in north Tarrant County where the median household income is $49,000 -- were going to find it difficult to live with the rate increase Monarch Utilities is requesting, which would boost the average water bill to $95.47, a hike of $25.32 per month. Add in a proposed 25 percent increase in the sewer fee, and a homeowner's bill could jump by about $42 a month.
"We have 800 houses and 16 businesses," Hooks said. "This is highway robbery, and they don't even have to use a gun."
On Thursday night about 300 people attended a specially called City Council meeting to vent about the proposed rate increase.
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"My water costs more than my electricity, more than my [city] taxes and more than my house insurance," one resident said.
Others described seeing signs advertising yard sales so the homeowners could pay their water bills. When Hooks asked for a show of hands to deny the rate increase request, it appeared that all audience members raised their hands.
Lambeth Townsend, an attorney representing Monarch, said he understood that people are upset about the rate increase. "If we can sit down with them one to one, we could address these issues," he said.
Council members voted 4-0, with one member absent, to deny Monarch's request, giving the utility company 90 days to appeal the decision to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
If the agency agrees with Monarch's appeal, the higher rate could take effect by January.
Janice Hayes, communications director with Southwest Water, said the increase is needed because the company invested $70 million in the past five years to replace meters, tap new water sources, and replace aging water and wastewater treatment plants.
"These environmentally responsible upgrades allow us to provide our customers with clean, abundant water and to protect our streams and waterways," Hayes wrote in an e-mail to the Star-Telegram. "Our sizable investment across the state means our costs are significantly higher and can no longer be sustained by the current rates."
A $175.90 water bill
Under the proposed rate increase filed with the state, the average water bill charged to a Monarch customer using 6,000 gallons would climb from $70.15 to $95.47. It had previously used a graduated schedule that charged rates based on the amount used.
The utility also wants to raise its sewage fees. Previously it charged a flat fee of $63.72. It now wants to levy a lower base fee of $53.47, while adding a $5.64 fee for every 1,000 gallons.
If the proposal is approved, a typical Blue Mound resident could see his monthly water and sewer bill jump from $133.87 to $175.90.
Monarch, which is owned by Southwest Water, serves several communities in North Texas and across the state. Hooks discovered that leaders in those communities were also angered by the utility's rate request and have formed a coalition to fight it.
Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said rate increase requests are decided case by case.
"The Monarch Utilities situation is very complicated," she said.
Monarch has already imposed higher rates for customers in unincorporated areas. Hayes said that increase is being imposed in two phases. The first began Aug. 1; the second will be in July 2012.
Orville Bevel, who organized a citizens group, Texans Against Monopolies Excessive Rates in the late 1990s, said the group opposes the increase.
Bevel said that when TAMER was formed, only two subdivisions were involved, but now the group represents around 20,000 water customers
"We believe it is illegal and do not believe the rate increase should be allowed," Bevel said.
He said the rate increase is especially difficult for those living in unincorporated areas where consumers can't deny them like cities can. Under agency regulations, cities can opt out, Bevel said.
TAMER will participate in an Oct. 10 hearing in Austin to contest the rate increase in areas outside city limits. Hooks said the coalition of cities will also be on hand to testify.
In Keene, City Administrator Bill Guinn said about 50 residents get water from Monarch. They were annexed into Keene several years ago, he said. Although the city is not part of the coalition fighting the rate increase, Guinn said he is researching what the city can do about the proposal.
"On the surface, this appears to be a very high increase and an undue burden to our residents," he said.
Alecia Stewart, who lives in Metroplex Homesteads, a subdivision in rural Johnson County between Mansfield and Joshua, said her rate is going up 55 percent.
Stewart, 50, said many of her neighbors are on food stamps and fixed incomes.
"People tell me they can't afford their medications because of the high water bills," she said. "It literally breaks my heart when people tell me they can't get their medicines."
Stewart also said that for her Hispanic neighbors, many of whom don't speak English, "fighting a rate increase is way over their heads."
Hayes said that Monarch provides assistance for low-income residents. The company's website has notices and other information in Spanish and the company has "multilingual customer service representatives."
Meanwhile, Blue Mound has had other problems with Monarch. Last year, Hooks took the company to task over fire hydrants that had too little pressure. Monarch resolved the issue so the hydrants are usable.
Yet consumers have the nagging questions about rates.
"It's just flat robbery," Hooks said.