Pitchfork time: Aqua North Carolina customers already pay among the highest utility rates in the state—some households' monthly water bills top $200. Now Aqua NC has asked for a 19 percent rate increase, its third request since 2008.
Over the next month, the N.C. Utilities Commission, which can approve, deny or amend the rate request, is sponsoring several the public hearings, including one in Raleigh this week. Expect these hearing to be contentious and crowded: Aqua NC customers frequently complain about poor water quality and bad customer service—which they pay a handsome price for.
"I have lived in seven residences over my 43 years and NEVER have I paid the rates that Aqua currently charges, let alone approving a rate increase," wrote Davis Whitfield, a Chatham County resident, in public comments to the utilities commission. Whitfield said his water bill averages $125 a month. "There is no justification for such an increase..."
Aqua NC's profit strategy mirrors that of its parent company, Aqua America, which operates in 10 states, and 53 counties in North Carolina. One of the largest private utilities in the U.S., Aqua America is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and pays dividends to shareholders. According to zacks.com, which analyzes company stock performance, Aqua's third-quarter earnings increased 24 percent, in part because of rate increases. Revenues were down 4.8 percent because of declines in water consumption.
In documents filed with the utilities commission, Aqua NC argues it needs more money because customers are using less water—for financial and environmental reasons—which cuts into the company's profit margin. In essence, the increase is a conservation penalty.
The company also says it needs funds to invest in infrastructure. However, it is difficult to determine how much the company is spending and where, says Katie Hicks of Clean Water for North Carolina, a frequent critic of Aqua NC.
"We don't know how the additional revenues will be spent," Hicks says. "Customers can't find out what the company has fixed in their community."
According to the company's annual reports, its "growth strategy" is to buy problematic water systems, often in the suburbs or exurbs, for fire sale prices. It then inherits a customer base that helps pay for the upgrades and adds to the company's profitability, which is also boosted by rate hikes.
N.C. Utilities Commission public staff attorney William Grantmyre agrees that customers don't have easy access to the information, such as invoices, and if they did, they would find it nearly impossible to wade through. "It's voluminous and very time-consuming," Grantmyre says. The public staff is charged with representing ratepayers in cases before the commission.
It's unlikely Aqua NC will receive the full 19.2 percent. In a previous rate case, it requested 19 percent; the public staff recommended 1.1 percent and the utilities commission approved 5.1 percent.
Grantmyre says that the public staff has previously contested Aqua NC's cases, questioning the profit margin and executive compensation—Aqua America CEO Nicholas DeBenedictus earns $4 million annually in salary and stock options. It's likely the same financial issues will arise in this case. —Lisa Sorg
Quittin' time: It's been a rocky week for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. First, museum director Emlyn Koster refused to show a documentary, Shored Up, about coastal communities, public policy and sea-level rise.
Update with correction and clarification to N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences story:
A museum spokesman responded to this story, saying director Emlyn Koster did not overrule members of a programming committee, as originally written below. The spokesman said it was solely Koster’s decision.
As for the committee, according to member David Kroll, it recommended that the film should not be shown without a panel discussion and there was not time to assemble such a panel by late January, when the film is screening in Wilmington. It was also discussed that a grant for travel funds could be sought in order to bring the director in at a later date.
However, this is Koster’s email to the programming committee, which says the film will not be shown at all. This was the reasoning behind the INDY's statement that Koster overruled the committee:
"Regarding the film question at hand, it is my conclusion that sea level science and other contemporary science + society + environment matters will be approached by MNS in an objective manner in the earliest possible time frame. I do not therefore anticipate that MNS will be showing the film that the Program Committee has been recently debating, but please relay my appreciation to those who have approached us with the offer to soon do so."
Now, Meg Lowman, a leading, respected and beloved scientist at the museum, is leaving to work at the California Academy of Sciences as its inaugural chief of science and sustainability.
Lowman, who had been the director of the museum's Nature Research Center, was demoted earlier this year in a controversial reorganization that Koster spearheaded. She was reassigned to a new position, Senior Scientist and Director of Academic Partnerships & Global Initiatives, which did not have the responsibilities of her previous position. In addition, she had recently been reclassified as an exempt state employee, also known as at-will, meaning she could be fired for any reason or no reason at all.
In her new role at the California Academy of Sciences, Lowman will be responsible for the Academy's programs of scientific research and exploration as well as its programs addressing the challenge of sustaining life on Earth, according to an academy press release.
Koster was hired by N.C. Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla, who has publicly questioned the scientific consensus regarding climate change and has posited that oil, a fossil fuel, is a renewable-energy resource.—Lisa Sorg
Hankie time: Pittsboro residents didn't expect the controversial Chatham Park development to be on the agenda at a recent Board of Commissioners meeting, and they didn't expect Mayor Randy Voller to cry.
Many residents who attended the meeting were surprised that discussion and comments on the proposed 7,000-acre development had been scheduled, since many had assumed that an expanded subcommittee would first review the proposal. However, the subcommittee, which is to include members of the citizen's group Pittsboro Matters, has not yet been formed.
Nonetheless, Tim Smith of Preston Development, which is behind Chatham Park, gruffly rehashed his assertions that approving the planned community would not give Preston "carte blanche" to devise whatever future it wants for the town. He didn't hide his frustration with what he sees as sluggishness by commissioners when he asked the board, "Do you have any questions for me tonight that I haven't already answered?"
Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller, who did not run for re-election—his term is ending—vouched for the intentions of the developers, assuring citizens that Preston wouldn't simply rezone all the land and let it just lie there undeveloped. This assurance seemed beside the point, however, as prospect of leaving those 7,000 acres without a single house or shopping center on it is not what's keeping concerned residents awake at night.
Then Voller shared his fear of Pittsboro getting "bogged down in never-ending fighting." Then he talked about the roads and developments he built with his dad.
And that's when Voller started to cry.
"I think he would have liked to see us do something good for this town," Voller said, taking about his father, his voice quivering. "I'm sitting here at home with my dad's ashes ... and I don't want to put them in Chatham Forest ... I want to put them in some place we can be proud of." —Jess Clark
This article appeared in print with the headline "Aqua NC wants more money—yours."