Liberty Utilities held an open house meeting Tuesday night at White Hall Methodist Church to inform the public of work that has been done in the Pine Bluff and White Hall areas, as well as future plans – including a proposed rate hike – which is currently in arbitration between the company and the City of White Hall.
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.
Michael Beatty, vice president of Gas and Water Operations, said that Liberty has installed $2.6 million in infrastructure improvements in White Hall, including Automate Meter Reading water meters, which Beatty 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.
The City of White Hall passed rate increases in 2014, 2015 and 2016 since Liberty’s acquisition, but they were not implemented for several months due to high turnover in local managers. Since 2014, Liberty has had six managers in the Pine Bluff and White Hall areas.
Liberty had previously asked for a rate increase from the City of Pine Bluff but recently pulled their request. However, Manager of Operations Erin Foster said Tuesday night that Liberty could revisit the request for an increase in Pine Bluff sometime in the near future.
White Hall Mayor Noel Foster asked why the rate increase proposal for Pine Bluff was pulled.
“We had some other rate cases going on that needed attention. We needed to withdraw this one and focus on it later on so our regulatory department could focus on the other rate cases,” Erin Foster said. “There is nothing in concrete, but I know we will come back with a rate case because that is just the nature of the game. We do spend money to improve the infrastructure, and as we continue to improve the infrastructure we are going to have to go back to the [Arkansas Public Service Commission] to get a return on that money spent.”
One issue that residents have expressed concern about is water leaks along the Liberty lines. Erin Foster said that Liberty is losing around 23 percent to 24 percent of the water moving through their non-revenue lines, and 13-to-15 percent from unaccounted-for water.
Unaccounted-for water is the difference between the volume of water delivered in a network and legitimate consumption, both metered and unmetered.
The national average for water loss is 16 percent, according to the Water Quality and Health Council.
“Now, you have to keep in mind we have a very aging infrastructure that has been in for many years, so we are working as fast as we can to fix those leaks,” Erin Foster said. “We are always going to have them because we have an old infrastructure.”
Noel Foster said that he will fight the rate increase proposal for his city.
“They haven’t built any new infrastructures in White Hall, they have only rebuilt infrastructure that is already in place. That is considered maintenance, not new construction,” he said. “That is something they should be doing anyways. So, I am going to fight this.”
Some residents have expressed concern over customer service response times for receiving water meters at new locations. One customer who asked to remain anonymous said that an order for a new water meter was placed in October of 2018 but was not completed until earlier this week. Erin Foster asked customers to contact customer service in situations like this.
“The first place to start is customer service,” she said. “I would hope that customer service will communicate that onto us through our construction department. If they feel like they are not receiving the service they want, they can ask for Marilyn Mayfield or ask for me, Erin Foster, and we will be happy to speak with them and see what we can do to facilitate their problem and get it resolved. We did get the customer in question taken care of this week.”
Another point of concern for residents has been the use of contractors by Liberty Utilities in the Jefferson County area. There are currently two contractors being used by the company in Jefferson County. Erin Foster said that they are the only two companies licensed by the ISNetworld, which is a required license in order to be used by Liberty Utilities. One company that is contracted with Liberty Utilities is owned by family members of Liberty Utilities Project Specialist Thomas Raymick. This has been another area of concern for some residents.
“There are two contractors in town who are in the ISNetworld. They happened to have trained Thomas Raymick, and he is a member of their family,” said Erin Foster. “We do always put our contracts out to bid and are always going for the least amount of cost that meets our qualifications. One of those qualifications is being in the ISNetworld, which is a safety certification, and all of our contractors must meet those qualifications or we can’t use them. We are not limiting ourselves to two contractors. We are always looking for more.”
Erin Foster said that the two contractors being used are the only two contractors in Jefferson County who meet the qualifications.
“We are reaching out to Little Rock to find more contractors,” she said. “We are talking with engineers and getting our bids out there so that we can get more contractors in.
In total, there were 16 Liberty Utility employees and 14 residents on hand for the meeting. Noel Foster said he believes the lack of participation shows the lack of trust the community has for the company.
“They sent out mailers, and only 14 citizens showed up. That shows their lack of credibility in this community,” the mayor said. “Our citizens have had so many problems out of this company since they came here that they no longer trust them.”
He also noted that he would caution any other city or small water company from doing business with Liberty.
“We did our research before we sold to them,” Noel Foster. “We thought it would be good for us, and it was when Lester Melton was manager. He negotiated the sale and was a good manager, but he has retired. Since Lester retired, they have had five managers in four years. I am fighting their proposed rate increases because it is not fair for our citizens to have to pay for their issues due to lack of proper management.”
Any customers who need to speak with Liberty Utilities customer service team can do so by calling 1-855-382-6508 or by emailing CustomerServiceAr@LibertyUtilities.com