Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced Thursday that she is asking the Arkansas Public Service Commission to review the actions of Liberty Utilities and the water and wastewater utility systems it operates in Jefferson County.
Liberty Utilities has been operating as an unregulated water and wastewater utility service in White Hall without the oversight of the APSC, the AG’s office said in a news release.
“All Arkansas public utility rates are subject to review by the Public Service Commission to ensure customers are not being unduly burdened,” Rutledge said.
“Liberty Utilities must be subjected to appropriate oversight of the Public Service Commission which plays an important role in protecting customers from unjust utility rates. I am asking the APSC to act swiftly to safeguard the citizens of White Hall and all Liberty Utilities customers in Arkansas.”
Liberty Utilities has been operating in Pine Bluff as a water utility service provider under the oversight of the APSC, as it is supposed to. Shortly after the filing was made, the commission issued a summons to Liberty Utilities, requiring a response within 20 days.
Liberty currently has 17 wells, five treatment plants and 34 employees in Jefferson County, along with 470 miles of water mains and 22,000 water connections that use 10 million gallons of water per day. The City of White Hall alone has 3,800 water and sewer connections throughout the system.
Liberty Utilities responded to Rutledge’s office Thursday afternoon, writing in a news release: “Liberty Utilities operates regulated water, gas, and electric utilities in multiple states including Arkansas. We operate all of our utilities, including the utilities in White Hall, in strict compliance with city, state, and federal regulations. We do not object to oversight by Public Service Commissions. In fact, we welcome it. We work closely with regulators to serve the needs of our customers safely and prudently.
“In White Hall, while we are not regulated by the Arkansas Public Service Commission, we do have contracts with the City of White Hall to provide water and wastewater service, and, as part of those contracts, our rates and services are regulated by the White Hall City Council.
“All water and wastewater services provided to and rates paid by White Hall residents have been approved by the White Hall City Council. We have received a copy of the filing and will respond as requested. We look forward to working cooperatively with the APSC and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge in this matter.”
White Hall is also at odds with Liberty over a proposed fee hike and is currently in arbitration over the matter.
White Hall Mayor Noel Foster has said that the utility is trying to pay for its maintenance “off the backs of our residents.”
On Thursday, Foster said he is appreciative of the attorney general’s intervention.
“At this time, it is unclear how the PSC case will affect the arbitration proceedings,” Foster said, adding that he, City Attorney Tom Owens and the members of the City Council agree with Rutledge’s decision to pursue action before the PSC.
“The city looks forward to intervening in the case before the PSC and participating in obtaining a favorable outcome in the case for the citizens of White Hall,” Foster said. “Pleadings in the case will be available on the PSC website for all interested citizens.”
Michael Beatty, vice president of Gas and Water Operations, said at a community meeting held in January in White Hall that Liberty has installed $2.6 million in infrastructure improvements in White Hall, including Automate Meter Reading water meters, which he said are calibrated to 99 percent accuracy.
One purpose of the meeting was to discuss rate increases that Liberty is seeking from White Hall customers. Beatty said that if the increase is implemented, customers will see around an $8 per month increase in their water bill and a $9 increase in their sewer bill.