WEST PARIS — The results of a Public Utilities Commission summary investigation into possible irregularities by the West Paris Water District has been delayed, according to PUC Administrative Director Harry Lanphear.
The District was notified earlier this year that a summary investigation had been initiated by the PUC into the “acts and practices” of the local district.
Lanphear said the Recommended Decision, scheduled to be completed on June 25, “is taking considerably longer to write than was anticipated.” Lanphear said it will be issued “as soon as possible.”
The investigation was initiated following an inquiry from the Attorney General’s office on December 20, 2017 to the Commissioner’s Consumer Assistance and Safety Division .
The case was then sent to the PUC Commissioners because of “the number and seriousness” of the allegations, including how the District is operating and managing itself, according to the March 23 Notice of Investigation.
The local Water District was notified of the investigation and given 10 questions to answer. The questions included allegations by an unknown complaintant that the Trustees had given themselves pay raises in apparent violation of the District Charter, that Trustees were submitting time cards as employees, they have billed for days they were on vacation and provided no documentation for travel reimbursement, among other questions.
While the PUC accepted many of the responses, some of them kicked off further questions and resulted in the opening of the Summary Investigation, according to PUC documents.
On May 17, Trustees of the West Paris Water District were questioned for more than an hour by the PUC on subjects ranging from aging meters, billing to its 232 customers, the Pioneer Street project to replace a 1950s transit pipe that Water District trustees say repeatedly fails, internal handling of correspondence and other matters.
During the course of the conference it was learned that:
- At least 100 water meters are not working. Some are 20 years old. PUC regulations require meters be tested for accuracy every eight years and if they are not reading correctly, they be replaced. The local district said there is a plan to replace them.
- 90 new meters have been purchased and are being installed. They are 20-year-rated meters. The PUC requirement to review each meter for accuracy every eight years may be waived for the new meters that are all expected to be installed by the end of this year.
- Engineer Al Hodgson has been hired to do a comprehensive plan that will give Trustees the ability to look at the whole water district system. The report is due by May 2019.
- The District is working on three projects: updating meters, the Pioneer Street project and replacing a floating cover on the district storage tank. The priority is working on the repair and replacement of meters.
- The District does its own billing. The meters are read and recorded manually. Those numbers are then given to the office clerk who puts them into a program to generate bills. The district is hoping to have more automation as new meters are installed.
- The Trustees concede there is no way to substantiate what the PUC called a “huge” increase in annual report numbers from 2016 to 2017 because of the faulty meters.
- There were “innumerable” breaks in the water system so where the water went that was pumped is hard to say. All agreed there is no way to have an accurate read figures until the meters are fixed.
- There are no local policies or procedures in place, which led to “miscommunication, misunderstandings of responsibilities.”
- Private vehicles are used. When questioned about mileage, trustees told the PUC that some vehicles may run for 12 hours because it’s “much more efficient” to keep cars running while doing meters and making repairs. And in the bad weather the vehicles are used for shelters.
- Trustees do not receive an hourly wage for attending board meetings. Herrick said that was a “misunderstanding.” It was reported that way because accurate records were not being kept, he said.
The next step in the PUC investigation is to forward the Recommended Decision to all involved parties for comment. A Final Recommendation by the three-member PUC Commission is scheduled for July 10. The Examiners’ Report will most likely be issued a few weeks after that.
PUC REGULATES LOCAL DISTRICT
AUGUSTA – The Public Utilities Commission regulates electric, natural gas, telecommunications and water utilities “to ensure that Maine consumers enjoy safe, adequate and reliable services at rates that are just and reasonable for both consumers and utilities.”
The Commission currently regulates approximately 430 electric, telephone, water, and gas utility companies and districts, including the West Paris Water District. According to information from the Public Utilities Commission, the Commission establishes rates, grants utility operating authority, regulates utility service standards and monitors utility operations for safety and reliability for the companies.
When necessary, the Commission acts like a court, adjudicating cases such as the current investigation into the West Paris Water District.
The Commission says it may take testimony, subpoena witnesses and records, issue decisions or orders, hold public and evidentiary hearings, and encourage participation by all affected parties, including utility customers. The Commission also initiates investigations and rule makings, resolves procedural matters, and responds to legislative directives.
The Commission’s staff includes accountants, engineers, lawyers, financial analysts, consumer specialists, and administrative and support staff, according to its webpage. In adjudicatory proceedings, the staff act as advisers to the Commission.