Sewer rate hikes shock West Valley communities

SUN CITY, AZ - Thousands of water customers throughout the West Valley are seeing big jumps in their water bills.

"If you're expecting an $80 bill you can put a budget together. But then when you got $200, I mean that's a car payment," said Scott Wiley.

Wiley and his wife live in the Crossriver neighborhood in the far northwest Valley. It's part of a group of neighborhoods in the the Agua Fria Wastewater District, run by private utility company Epcor Water.

"I don't even have grass in my back yard. I don't have a pool. I have four kids and two dogs and two cats. Yet my bill keeps going up," said neighbor Lanette Richmond.

Much of the district covers the Loop 303 to the north, El Mirage Road to the east, and Grand Avenue to the west. Other portions include Verrado and parts of Sun City, Buckeye and Surprise.

Customers say major increases in their bills started back in January 2013.

That's when new sewer rates went into effect for the Agua Fria Wastewater District, with basic sewer service costing around $48. And that doesn't include used water or trash.

In January 2014, the base price rose to $57.36.

A third increase to $66.12 is scheduled to take effect in January of 2015.

"The reason for it is there's so few people in the community of the Agua Fria District," says Jim McKee, Epcor spokesman.

He says Agua Fria and Anthem used to be in the same wastewater district, sharing the costs.

But that ended last year after the Arizona Corporation Commission voted to split them.

Documents show Anthem argued that they were paying for services that they did not use.

The Arizona Corporation Commission agreed.

That meant Anthem -- nearly 9,000 customers -- was removed from the water district and became a separate district altogether.

"Fewer customers resulted in an increase per customer bill," says McKee.

Documents show by the time it's all said and done, that increase will be nearly 133 percent over rates from 2008.

It's a decision that has Agua Fria customers asking what the ACC was thinking.

The commission would not comment specifically about the case but says they are reviewing complaints about the rates.

But it's decision cites a few reasons , including wanting "to preserve the integrity of settlement negotiations that occur in commission proceedings."

We found out the mentioned settlement dates back to 2010 .

At the time, Anthem was fighting a proposed rate increase by Epcor (then Arizona American Water).

Documents show that Anthem negotiated to give up fighting that increase in exchange for the initiation of their removal from the merged wastewater district.

Residents in Agua Fria tell me they had no idea about any deal made back then, but are being forced to make hard decisions now.

Some are seriously considering moving.

"I would love to stay in my neighborhood. This where their schools and their friends are. But you know what? I think I'm going to go across the river where I can pay $100 or more less a month," said Lanette Richmond

Others are flooding the commission and Epcor with letters and emails. They tell me they're also considering legal action.

Epcor tells me consolidation of its districts is the solution.

"It would be better if we could consolidate either the water or the waste water districts together," said McKee. "And we have one process for all of them. Everybody shares the cost, some of our customers would see a small increase, others would see a decrease."

It's a move that would have to be approved by the ACC, and McKee says the commission has not been on board with similar plans in the past.

The folks in Agua Fria don't care how it's done, they just want Epcor and the Arizona Corporation Commission to take action soon.

"We would like for them now to review what the impact is now -- 2 years later on this agreement," said resident Fran Noe.

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