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ALXnow reporter’s sink (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

Three years after Alexandria battled with Virginia American Water over a significant rate hike, both sides are rearing up for round two.

Back in 2021, the City of Alexandria pushed back against a rate increase proposed by utility company Virginia American Water. The city was able to secure a $420,000 refund, but the rate still increased.

Now, Climate Action Officer Ryan Freed said Virginia American Water has increased rates by another 29%, which Alexandrians will see on their utility bill in May.

The average water bill in Alexandria is $35 per month, so Freed said this will amount to a $10 monthly increase or $125 per year.

Freed said there’s no way of stopping the rate increase from taking effect, but the City of Alexandria can fight it in the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

Freed said, with City Council approval, staff will argue to the Commission in June. Virginia American Water will make their rebuttal in September, and a settlement conference will likely come afterward.

“I think it’s going to be jarring to people when they open that bill in May,” said City Council member Sarah Bagley. “I think it’s important that the community hears we’re planning to object; that, unfortunately, the process does not provide a way to stop the rate from taking effect. You can only appeal it once it’s happened, so we are preparing to do that but it will take place regardless. Ultimately, if successful, we will be seeking refunds.”

Freed also noted that Virginia American Water is also seeking to further decouple the rate increases from regulatory oversight.

“Virginia American Water has been aggressive in seeking these increases,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “They’ve been aggressive in seeking features that allow automatic rate increases without the scrutiny of the State Corporation Commission. We have universally opposed those mechanisms as well as exorbitant increases.”

Wilson also said he’s frustrated by the “inefficient” system of fighting over rate increases via refunds and suggested, in the future, trying to get Virginia American Water to come to the table to discuss increases rather than both sides engaging in a protracted legal battle.

The City Council voted unanimously to support staff intervening.

“Staff is really concerned about this for the community,” Freed said. “This is water. Water is life. This is why we’re taking this pretty seriously.”

AlexRenew headquarters, via Alexandria Renew Enterprises/Facebook

Alexandrians struggling to pay their sewer bill might have some relief next year.

AlexRenew, the city’s wastewater authority, said in a release it’s launching a charity-funded emergency bill assistance program called Lifeline Emergency Assistance Program (LEAP).

“Beginning this spring, the program will provide emergency bill assistance for eligible AlexRenew residential customers who are having difficulty paying their sewer bill,” AlexRenew said in a release. “AlexRenew has partnered with Dollar Energy Fund — a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that specializes in utility assistance — to administer the program.”

The utility company said the program will be funded initially through donations made by organizations and community members helping neighbors in need cover the cost of their bills.

“We believe this is an important initiative for our customers,” AlexRenew’s general manager and CEO Justin Carl said in the release. “Wastewater utilities are essential to people’s everyday lives, and the LEAP program is one way we can help ensure customers have access to this vital resource.”

Via Alexandria Renew Enterprises/Facebook

Calvert Avenue closed as Washington Gas investigates leak, staff photo by Jay Westcott

Alexandria is seeing an uptick in contractors striking gas lines, partly thanks to outdated utility maps.

At a meeting of the Alexandria Local Emergency Planning Committee (full disclosure, this reporter served on the committee) last week, Fire Marshal Russell Furr said there is a “higher than normal number of gas lines being struck.”

Furr said part of that is due to all the digging with the new broadband network project.

“Over the past month, there have been 20 or 30 utility tickets issued for contractors digging, and it’s only going to continue because that project is just now getting underway,” Furr said.

Furr noted that some of the maps do not line up with where the lines actually are, and some of them show incorrect depths on the gas lines.

“[Washington Gas] has even hit their own lines in the past,” Furr said.

Furr also noted that, as Ting Internet digs around Del Ray area, they’ve accidentally knocked out Verizon lines a few times.

Tap water in Alexandria (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria residents might notice a slight dip in their water bill soon thanks to a recent fight in the State Corporation Commission (SCC).

In a release, the City of Alexandria said city attorneys successfully objected to water overcharges by the Virginia American Water Company (VAWC) from 2019-2021.

The fight over the surcharges has been part of a back-and-forth between Alexandria and the VAWC over water rate increases.

According to the release:

The SCC’s ruling in favor of the City means residents will receive refunds of surcharges that appeared on bills between 2019 and 2021. Additionally, the ruling reduces the water rate increase that took effect in May 2022. The reduction is retroactive to May 2022, so most residents will see a partial refund of water bills paid over the past year, as well as lower water rates going forward. The refunds will be made as credits on residents’ water bills, which should be applied to residents’ accounts no later than July 24th.

“Our residents expect reliable and safe drinking water, at a reasonable rate,” Mayor Justin Wilson said in the release. “The City will continue to work with private utilities, public regulators and policymakers to protect Alexandria’s ratepayers.”

ALXnow reporter’s sink (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

Earlier this year, Alexandria got into a scrap with Virginia American Water Company (VAWC) over a rate increase. Now, Mayor Justin Wilson says the city, utility company and other parties are getting closer to a compromise.

Alexandria is one of a handful of Virginia with a private water utility provided by VAWC, a subsidiary of a large national company regulated by the State Corporation Commission (SCC). In November 2021, it applied to the SCC for a nearly 28% increase in rates, along with other charges and rate supplements.

At the time, the company claimed the increase, to the tune of $14.3 million, would fund infrastructure investments in Alexandria and three other localities. But local leaders said the rate increase was significantly beyond what had been expected. Had it gone through, Wilson says residents would have seen their bills increase by about 36%.

“After analysis, our staff determined that this rate increase was excessive and Council voted to again intervene with the State Corporation Commission to oppose this proposed rate increase,” Wilson wrote in his Council Connection newsletter, released on Sunday.

In a report filed in early December, a hearing examiner from the SCC agreed with a proposed $3.5 million reduction to the overall increase. The total proposed increase of $10.75 million is called “the stipulation.”

“The SCC appointed a hearing examiner to review the case and provide recommendations to the Commission,” Wilson wrote in the newsletter. “Last month, the hearing examiner provided his report, which largely endorsed a proposed settlement between the City, VAWC, and the SCC. This settlement will lower the increase and provide for refunds to Alexandria ratepayers. Last week, the City provided input supporting most of the hearing examiner’s findings.”

Two weeks ago, the city filed comments mostly agreeing with the findings from the report — though there remains some disagreement about additional refunds.

Wilson noted that the SCC will still need to act on these recommendations later this year and he hopes the city and VAWC can move past the disagreement — water under the bridge, so to speak.

“I’m hopeful we can continue our efforts working with VAWC to improve our aging water infrastructure but respect our ratepayers and good processes at the same time,” Wilson wrote.

Flooding near the Braddock Road Metro on Thursday, September 16, 2021. (Courtesy Kerrin Nishimura)

The City of Alexandria is making it easier for locals who pitch in on flood prevention to skip out on their utility fees.

At a meeting last night, the City Council voted to adopt a series of changes to a utility fee credit program, including reducing the fee for residents who install flood mitigation on their property.

All property owners in Alexandria pay a stormwater utility fee based on the amount of impervious area — or hard surface — on their property. The Stormwater Utility Fee Credit Program allows local property owners to claim reductions on that fee.

Flooding has been a significant problem for Alexandria in recent years. The fee helps pay for flood mitigation projects and other parts of the stormwater management program.

Some of the changes should make is easier for locals to earn get that fee reduction.

“Property owners can earn credits to reduce the fee by installing and maintaining eligible stormwater management practices and filing an application to the City,” the city said in a release. “Applications can be submitted by searching for the property on the City’s Real Estate webpage or submitting a hardcopy form. Applications will be accepted from December 1 to February 15.”

According to the release, some of the changes from the meeting include:

  • Simplified application process that removes duplicate items and streamlines documentation requirements
  • Two-year credit applied to two consecutive calendar years – or four billing cycles – for approved applications for eligible practices
  • Increased credits for individual eligible practices and increased overall potential maximum credit per application from 30% to 50%
  • Previous applicants will be notified via email to reapply for the next two-year credit cycle starting in 2024
  • Added credit option for preserving and maintaining existing mature trees and dry floodproofing practices
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The City of Alexandria has issued a formal objection to a water rate increase proposed by Virginia American Water.

Virginia American Water, a statewide utility company, requested authority from the state to increase its rates to create a sales revenue totaling $14.3 million — a 27.6% increase over current revenues.

The City of Alexandria said under the requested rate increase, the bill for the average residential customer using 4,500 gallons of water per month would increase by about 40% — around $117 per year. Residential customers with above average water use could see their bill increase by more than 50%.

“At the direction of Alexandria City Council, the City has formally objected on behalf of Alexandria’s water customers to Virginia American Water’s request to the State Corporation Commission to raise water rates,” the city said in a release. “The City’s primary objections are that the company’s proposed return on equity, or profit margin, should be lower; the rate of bill increases should be gradual and representative of national averages; and costs of serving customers should be appropriately and fairly allocated among residential, commercial, and industrial customers.”

In the release, the City of Alexandria said the public is encouraged to submit comments opposing the requested increase with the State Corporation Commission by Sept. 20. Comments can be submitted online by picking “submit comments” for case PUR-2021-00255. The City said locals should indicate that the rate increase should be phased more gradually with a lower return on equity.

“While Virginia American Water is an important partner in Alexandria’s water system, the City has a responsibility to the community to speak up when rate increases are too aggressive,” said City Manager James Parajon. “Increases are needed from time to time in order to maintain and improve aging infrastructure, but they must be structured and paced fairly and equitably.”

The Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing on Friday, Sept. 23, at 10 a.m. via phone and another hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 27 at the same time that will be accessible online.

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