Petitioners Seek To Oust Water Company

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A petition being circulated asks the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District (PSWID) to acquire the Pine and Strawberry water companies, both owned by Brooke Utilities.

According to Strawberry Hollow Water Improvement District Chairman Loren Peterson, who is involved in the petition drive, the goal is to secure the signatures of a majority of the property owners serviced by the two companies to show Gila County that there is public support for such a move.

"Gila County really can't do anything unless they think it's what the people want, so that's why this whole petition thing," Peterson said. "It's $12 million, and that's a lot of money."

In an open letter dated Dec. 8, Peterson alleges a number of irregularities by Brooke Utilities. Most notably, Peterson claims Pine Water Company substantially underestimated the amount of water lost because the system is in disrepair.

While Pine Water Company claims only a 7.3 percent loss, Peterson estimates the company actually lost 42.8 percent of the water it pumped and purchased in 2002 -- a total loss of 22,288,986 gallons.

In a separate written piece, also dated Dec. 8, Peterson lays out a six-point plan of action that he claims can be accomplished for "less than $100 per year per parcel and less than a 25 percent increase over current rates."

Brooke spokesperson Myndi Brogdon said the company had no comment on the petition at this time. She did indicate, however, that Brooke intends to address the matter soon.

The PSWID board was dissolved by the Gila County Board of Supervisors in August after a series of resignations reduced the number of board members from seven to two. Gila County Manager John Nelson was named interim administrator in September. Nelson appointed a 12-person committee representing a cross-section of the community to provide input until a new board can be elected next year. Peterson is a member of that committee.

"They don't want everybody to think this is a real estate/developer push, and that's why (Nelson) got this group of mixed-background people for his advisory group," he said.

Peterson also announced that a public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 7, at the Pine Community Center to explain the financial aspects of having PSWID acquire the two water companies.

Public comment session

Although Peterson and Brogdon are on opposite sides of the Pine Water Company rate increase request, both expressed their displeasure with the Arizona Corporation Commission's public comment session held in the Pine Elementary School gymnasium Dec. 8.

Brogdon said she was disappointed that Brooke officials in attendance were not allowed to speak.

"People want answers, but we weren't allowed by the commission," she said. "So it looked like we sat there and were just rude. It made it look like we're not going to speak by our choice."

"Most people have been to these hearings before and nothing ever comes from them," Peterson said. "The commissioners think it's all about rates. It's not all about rates. It's about water."

Heather Murphy, public information officer for the ACC, explained the format followed at the hearing. "It's very common for the companies to be there, and it is sort of awkward when the customers are raising issues," she said.

An evidentiary hearing is scheduled for Jan. 15 in Phoenix, at which time companies, organizations and individuals who have formally intervened will be able to question the company and argue their positions. Those requesting intervention include John Breninger, former member of PSWID; Robert Cassaro, a Pine resident; and Nelson on behalf of PSWID.

Pine Water Company, which is owned by Brooke Utilities, filed the rate increase request May 1. It includes a 49-percent summer rate increase of $13.42 for a customer using the summer average of 2,731 gallons per month. On top of that, all Pine Water customers would be charged a $10 a month water exploration surcharge and also would continue to pay the cost of hauling supplemental water.

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