Residents of St. George Island are preparing for a hearing next week to weigh in on a challenge to the recent rate hike granted the island’s water utility by the Public Service Commission.

The hearing is necessary because the PSC’s Office of Public Counsel has protested four issues, and Water Management Services Inc. eight issues, arising out of last year’s granting of a rate hike to WMS.

Erik Sayler, an attorney in the Office of Public Counsel, which represents the interests of WMSI customers in the water utility's current rate increase request case. He and his colleague, Mr. Tarik Noriega, met with WMSI customers Dec. 11 to review and provide the status of the five areas the OPC is protesting from the PSC's August rate case decision.

Customer testimony will be taken Wednesday, Jan. 16 at the St. George Island firehouse, 324 East Pine Avenue, beginning at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The OPC has said the following five major issues addressed in OPC’s testimony are critically important to customers: The use of utility money advanced for non-utility purposes, the increased service availability charges, the remaining $153,000 balance on the gain-on-sale issue, the past rate case expense; and the current protest rate case expense.

Martin Friedman, an attorney for WMS, has said that the issues raised by OPC either can be worked out amicably, or constitute little more than an unfair attack, particularly when it comes to allegations that the company took money out of customer revenue.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors, it’s a red herring,” he said. “It’s the biggest red herring argument you can imagine.”

Sayler has said that $1.2 million in monies advanced for non-utility purposes should be titled in the utility’s name, and the company should be prevented from advancing funds to anyone not related to utility operations. They also want a through review of the salary drawn by President Gene Brown and to have the PSC reject any attempt to restore it in its entirety.

The OPC also objects to increased tap-in fees for new customers, and wants to revisit the amount of the increased charge during the true-up phase for the new groundwater storage tank. The OPC wants the PSC to order WMS to escrow service availability charges, as had been the case in past years.

The OPC is also seeking to learn why WMS stopped paying its attorneys in the last rate case, and is asking that some or all of this previously approved rate case expense be removed.

Lastly, the OPC wants the PSC to allow only “reasonable” rate case expenses in this current case.