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Column

It's a little late for Aloha to truly show 'good faith'

By C.T. BOWEN
Published July 24, 2005


Good faith.

The term appears multiple times in a July 21 Public Service Commission staff memorandum. It recommends that the PSC settle pending litigation with Aloha Utilities.

Under the proposed agreement, Aloha won't face the threat of losing its customer base, can seek a rate increase to buy water from Pasco County and then another increase to offset the cost of installing a still-to-be-determined treatment method to rid its water of the rotten-egg smelling hydrogen sulfide.

In exchange, Aloha can't stick its customers for the cost of attorney fees, must show good faith by refunding $276,000 already owed to customers and then make a good faith effort to install the new treatment system in a timely manner, according to the memorandum. These "substantial concessions from Aloha demonstrate its good faith and its sincere desire to reach a negotiated resolution."

Unfortunately, the 18-page memo never defines its terms. So, we'll use the American Heritage College Dictionary. "Good faith" means complying with what is decent and honest.

In other words, the PSC's general counsel had to negotiate with Aloha Utilities to get it to act decently and honestly.

Why is this a negotiable point? Why is a monopoly providing a necessary resource to 15,000 customers in southwest Pasco allowed to act any other way?

If Aloha had made these concessions eight years ago, it wouldn't face public scorn, high legal bills and customer attempts to secede from its franchise area and be served by Pasco County utilities. (See the letters to editor elsewhere on this page for a sample of the public sentiment toward the utility.)

The Public Service Commission shouldn't rush to accept this staff recommendation. Though it contains valid points, it also brings unanswered questions.

For a decade, customers have complained about dark, smelly water coming from their taps in Wyndtree, Chelsea Place and other Seven Springs neighborhoods. The utility responds that it provides drinking water that meets state standards. The discolored water comes from the chemical reaction between the water and copper piping inside of homes. There is little dispute over this.

But PVC piping doesn't guarantee odor-free water. Customer Susan Hendrick said last month that her water is clear but that it smells worse now that she replumbed her house, replacing copper pipes with PVC. Ditto Chris Hodges who wrote that his 2-month-old home has smelly water even though PVC, not copper, was used during construction.

Under the proposed settlement, Aloha promised $1,000 grants and three-year, interest-free financing of $2,500 to the first 200 who request the new pipes. If the PSC believes repiping is a legitimate response, then it should mandate Aloha make the offer available to all customers, particularly since 2,000 signatures, not 200, are on the petition to dissolve the utility's franchise area.

The settlement memo also illustrates why customers want to depart. The utility can't meet demand without exceeding pumping limits set by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. To compensate, Aloha will be allowed to buy water from Pasco County and then seek a rate increase from customers to pay for it.

So, why have the middle man?

Aloha's acquiescence to stop dragging its feet and refund $276,000 to customers as ordered previously by the PSC is welcome but tardy. Such a concession would have demonstrated good faith if the utility had done it a year ago before mediation. It did not, and mediation ended in an impasse.

If the proposal is accepted by the PSC, customers will continue to be served by a company they find arrogant and uncaring; pay to retrofit their plumbing; pay more for county-supplied water; wait for Aloha and the state to develop, approve and install a treatment system to rid their water of stench and then pay for that, too.

However, it is intended to end years of disputes and short-circuit a potential five-year legal battle and the exorbitant attorney fees that would accompany the question of whether part of Aloha's franchise area can be deleted. Those are positive attributes that lend legitimacy to the proposed settlement.

Still, the final paragraph of the settlement offer contains a hold-harmless clause. It's standard legal language, but grating under the circumstances.

"Aloha does not admit to any violation of any statute, rule or order, nor does such (settlement) offer constitute an admission of fault or liability on water quality or customer service issues which have been raised by the Commission or some of Aloha's customers," it states.

In other words: Don't blame us for any of this.

So much for good faith.

Reach C.T. Bowen at bowen@sptimes.com or at 727 869-6239.

[Last modified July 24, 2005, 00:22:18]


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