Rate cases raise ethics questions at NC Utilities Commission - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

WNCN Investigates

Rate cases raise ethics questions at NC Utilities Commission

Posted: Updated:
RALEIGH, N.C. -

If Aqua North Carolina gets what it wants, nearly 100,000 water customers, many of them based in the Triangle, will have to shell out a whole lot more money.

The company is asking for a 19 percent rate hike that could cost the average family more than $200 a year.

Aqua NC provides water and waste water service to many who live in subdivisions not covered by city water service.

"We're asking for recovery of investments already made that are already benefiting the customer," said Tom Roberts, the president of Aqua NC.

The company went before the N.C. Utilities Commission at a public hearing Thursday night to hear customers concerns. 

One of those concerns voiced by homeowners and watchdog groups -- whether there are conflicts of interest--involving those who decide to grant -- or deny rate hikes.

WNCN Investigates uncovered that many of the people making the decisions have previous ties to the companies they are often regulating.

The Utilities Commission regulates the rates and services of all public utilities in the state, such as Aqua NC.

Under state law, the commission's Public Staff is tasked with presenting a unified position in the best interest of the rate-payers on all issues before the commission.

The commission has two rate cases before them: Aqua NC and Utilities Inc. The Public Staff's job is to present its findings to the commissioners.

WNCN Investigates found a common history that critics say raises concerns. Here are a few:

  • Commission Chair Ed Finley Jr. is a former attorney for Utilities Inc. He will participate in the Utilities Inc. hearings but will not preside.
  • Public Staff Director Christopher Ayers is also a former attorney for Utilities Inc. He has recused himself from the hearings.
  • Public Staff Attorney William Grantmyre was president of Heater, Inc., a utility company that merged with Aqua North Carolina. He told WNCN, "I don't see a conflict of interest; critics should look at my performance in the last rate case." He claims to have pushed against a previous rate hike.
  • Aqua North Carolina and Utilities Inc. attorney Jo Ann Sanford led the Utilities Commission for 10 years. She told WNCN, "Lawyers become judges then resume the practice of law as an everyday occurrence. Would it be sensible to say a judge forfeits {their} right to return to practice of law? Or that all defense attorneys and prosecutors should be disqualified from becoming judges? Of course not. In a 38 year career as a lawyer, I have served variously as consumer counsel, "judge "/commissioner, and company counsel. I left Commission 7 years ago."

Watchdog groups like Clean Water for NC are skeptical.

Hope Taylor of Clean Water for NC said, "The public staff's role is to be the advocates for the public and get the best deal for the public. We don't think that is happening as a result of these historical relationships with the private water utilities."

There is no evidence of wrong doing, but critics like Taylor say the public should be aware of who has ties to what.

But Sam Watson, general counsel for the Utilities Commission, said, "Each of these folks take their jobs seriously, and will represent the interest that they are being asked to represent fairly."

At Thursday's meeting, Public Staff Director Christopher Ayers also responded to the critics, telling WNCN Investigates, "The utilities world is a small world and and there is a limited group of people that have the expertise. You certainly don't want someone on the Public Staff who has no background in utilities."

He continued, "We are very careful to make sure an appropriate amount of time goes by before they have any involvement with any potential company they would have worked with."

Aqua North Carolina is also pushing on another front. The company wants to increases rates up to 5 percent without holding public hearings. When WNCN Investigates questioned the president about that, he said the hearing process for general rate cases would continue, but that they just want to surcharge outside the public arena.  

"What we are asking for is the ability to surcharge," Roberts said. "It has been suggested by both us and the public staff that is it is not necessary to have that hearing process."

RELATED STORIES

Jonathan Carlson

Jonathan is an investigative reporter and anchor with over a decade of experience. Jonathan has broken stories that have resulted in local and statewide change. Contact our Investigative Team anytime HERE. More>>

  • Most Popular StoriesMost Popular StoriesMore>>

  • Squatters Move Into Soldier's Home and Refuse to Leave

    Squatters Move Into Soldier's Home and Refuse to Leave

    Wednesday, April 23 2014 2:25 PM EDT2014-04-23 18:25:50 GMT
    Alleged SquatterAlleged Squatter
    When soldier Michael Sharkey was deployed to Afghanistan two years ago, he asked a friend to watch over his New Port Richey house.
    When soldier Michael Sharkey was deployed to Afghanistan two years ago, he asked a friend to watch over his New Port Richey house.
  • April Mugshots

    April Mugshots

    Tuesday, April 22 2014 2:42 PM EDT2014-04-22 18:42:32 GMT
    Thomas Allen WinstonThomas Allen Winston
    The following are mugshots and charges of individuals arrested between April 1-4 by the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office.
    The following are mugshots and charges of individuals arrested between April 1-4 by the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office.
  • MUGS: 36 Arrests In Greenville Prostitution Sting

    MUGS: 36 Arrests In Greenville Prostitution Sting

    Wednesday, February 26 2014 12:58 PM EST2014-02-26 17:58:17 GMT
    The Greenville County Sheriff's Office, along with 26 other agencies throughout 15 states, participated in the event during National Day of Johns Arrest.The Greenville County Sheriff's Office, along with 26 other agencies throughout 15 states, participated in the event during National Day of Johns Arrest.
    The Greenville County Sheriff's Office, along with 26 other agencies throughout 15 states, participated in the event during National Day of Johns Arrest.
    The Greenville County Sheriff's Office, along with 26 other agencies throughout 15 states, participated in the event during National Day of Johns Arrest.
  • Most Popular StoriesMost Popular StoriesMore>>

  • Owner of Raleigh 'Party Mansion' guilty of tax evasion

    Owner of Raleigh 'Party Mansion' guilty of tax evasion

    Monday, April 14 2014 4:07 PM EDT2014-04-14 20:07:04 GMT
    Claude Verbal II, who now lives in Miami, pleads guilty to a number of federal tax evasion charges.
    Claude Verbal II, who now lives in Miami, pleads guilty to a number of federal tax evasion charges.
  • Mom bites off dog's ear to save daughter during attack

    Mom bites off dog's ear to save daughter during attack

    Tuesday, April 22 2014 2:49 PM EDT2014-04-22 18:49:19 GMT
    Image from CNN/KHOU-TVImage from CNN/KHOU-TV
    In a backyard in Alvin, swings a very lucky girl. Her name is Mackenzi Plass, or Kenzi for short, and she survived a dog attack and has undergone several surgeries."She'll be two and a half in May," said her very proud mother Chelsi Camp. "She's doing great. You wouldn't know it if you couldn't see."Mackenzi has scars on her face after the ordeal just weeks ago that put her mother's animal instincts to the test."You do whatever you can," said Camp. "I don't have physical strength at my side."...
    In a backyard in Alvin, swings a very lucky girl. Her name is Mackenzi Plass, or Kenzi for short, and she survived a dog attack and has undergone several surgeries."She'll be two and a half in May," said her very proud mother Chelsi Camp. "She's doing great. You wouldn't know it if you couldn't see."Mackenzi has scars on her face after the ordeal just weeks ago that put her mother's animal instincts to the test."You do whatever you can," said Camp. "I don't have physical strength at my side."...
  • NC judge to rule against teacher tenure state law

    NC judge to rule against teacher tenure state law

    Wednesday, April 23 2014 7:18 PM EDT2014-04-23 23:18:26 GMT
    A Guilford County judge is backing two school districts fighting a North Carolina law that phases out job protections for public school teachers in favor of employment contracts.
    A Guilford County judge is backing two school districts fighting a North Carolina law that phases out job protections for public school teachers in favor of employment contracts.
Powered by WorldNow

1430 East Victory Drive
Savannah, GA 31404

Telephone: 912.651.0300
Fax: 912.651.0320
Email: newsemailalert@wsav.com

Can't find something?
Powered by WorldNow
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2014 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC. A Media General Company.