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Steel of WV’s sewer rate challenge will head to PSC

By JOSEPHINE MENDEZ

The Herald-Dispatch

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Representatives with Steel of West Virginia have decided to take their sewer rate dispute with the Huntington Sanitary Board to the Public Service Commission of West Virginia following a ruling from West Virginia’s high court.

In its opinion filed Tuesday, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the court does not have jurisdiction over Steel of West Virginia’s challenge to increases in the city’s sewer rates, deciding that power lies instead with the Public Service Commission.

Steel of West Virginia challenged the Sanitary Board’s rate increase following its approval by Huntington City Council in December 2016, citing insufficient public notice.

 The allegation of improper notice stems from the belief that the projects the rate increase will fund are not in the “ordinary course of business,” which requires a 30-day public notice as outlined in state code.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court refused to decide if the Sanitary Board’s proposed projects were in the “ordinary course of business,” citing lack of jurisdiction.

The ruling further states that a Cabell Circuit Court judge erred in passing judgment on the projects because that power lies with the state PSC.

Even though the Supreme Court made no ruling on the merit of Steel of West Virginia’s argument, John O’Connor, vice president of administration for Steel of West Virginia, said the ruling still appears to be in their favor.

“The (Public Service Commission) is a pretty good place to take (our argument) since their own precedent says (the Sanitary Board’s projects) are not within the ordinary course of business and therefore they didn’t give proper notice,” O’Connor said.

Brian Bracey, director of the Huntington Water Quality Board, said the Supreme Court ruling reaffirms that the Sanitary Board acted in accordance with the law when pursing the rate increase.

“We felt strongly that our position all along has been correct and accurate and that we continue to operate in the normal course of business as we have stated before,” he said. “We still feel confident in our position, and we feel confident the Public Service Commission will feel the same.”

While the Supreme Court did not pass judgment on the types of projects the Sanitary Board proposed, it did uphold the decision by the Cabell County judge by denying Steel of West Virginia its petition for a writ of mandamus and injunctive relief, stating again that such relief should have been sought from the PSC.

O’Connor said Steel of West Virginia intends to take its case against the Sanitary Board to the PSC immediately.

Huntington City Council approved the rate increases at the end of 2016. Officials with the Sanitary Board said the increases were necessary to fund nine capital improvement projects totaling $7.5 million, as well as offset increases in health insurance and sludge removal costs.

The first of three rate increases took effect in February and the second is scheduled for Dec. 31, 2017.

Following the final increase on Dec. 31, 2018, sewer rates for Huntington Sanitary Board customers will have increased by more than 50 percent.

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