Citizens Energy customers concerned over rising water rates

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Your combined water-sewer bill could be going up yet again. Citizens Energy says there are expensive repairs to make and it needs to raise rates to pay for them.

That worries Amber Davison, a single mom, who waits tables at a north side restaurant.

"It's just going to cut into what I pay for other things," Davison said.

Citizens Energy wants to raise residential water and sewer rates a total of 26 percent by October of 2014. For the average customer that means an extra $17 a month and for Amber every penny counts.

"Instead of buying fruits and vegetables for the kids, instead of fast food, you're going to pay more for your water bill," she said.

Amber's boss will pay more too, as the restaurant uses a lot of water. If approved, commercial rates will rise 27 percent, or an average of $131 a month.

Rick Rising-Moore, owner of the Aristocrat Pub & Restaurant, said, "I think we've done as much as we can to conserve because all of our equipment is Energy Star, our dishwashers are all Energy Star, but you know, we have to have water to make soups and to clean things."

Citizens spokesperson Sarah Holsapple said the the rate hike is needed to help pay for $560 million in major improvements and federally-mandated projects like the underground tunnel. It's being built to keep raw sewage from going into rivers and streams.

Other money will go toward preventing water main breaks, which Holsapple said are now averaging 700 a year.

"Customers need to know these projects we're doing are very expensive," she said.

The increase comes after sewer rates rose 10.75 percent for the last five years and water rates went up 25 percent in 2011. Both occurred before Citizens acquired the water and sewer utilities from the city. The proposed hikes are the first requested by Citizens.

"This will be the biggest increase for the foreseeable future," Holsapple said. "There will be rate increases though on the water side every other year and the sewer side probably every year."

While critics of the privatization deal question the increases, Holsapple said with or without the deal, a major overhaul was not only needed but required by the federal government.

"People just need to understand that had the sewer and water systems stayed with the city, rates still would have gone up, but they just would have gone up even higher," she said.

Michael Knowlton, who owns Curly's Cleaners, said either way, it's tough to face another increase. His business also uses a lot of water and the last thing he wants to do is pass on the added cost to his customers.

"I understand the need for infrastructure (improvements) and I'm a pretty civic-minded guy, so I'm not mad about doing all we have to do to keep things safe for everyone, but it's hard as a businessman to find the money," he said, noting "I guess you just absorb it because the price structure in dry cleaning is very competitive."

The proposed increases need the approval of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. It's not clear yet when the IURC will take up Citizens' request.