Institutionalized scrutiny of the Hammond Water Works’ rates and charges, levels of indebtedness, costs of service determinations and bond issues for the future financing of millions in improvements to its water distribution system will soon be a thing of the past.
Last month, the city’s common council unanimously approved Ordinance No. 18-33, to remove the Water Works Department from the jurisdiction of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC). All the council first needed to do was notify Hammond citizens and hold two meetings to explain what withdrawal from the State’s IURC jurisdiction entailed. This was initiated by an enclosed flier in its March 2019 billings.
First and foremost, withdrawal from IURC jurisdiction means the merits of any future rate-hike proposals and other financing, such as bond issues, are no longer procedurally subject to analytical review by Indiana’s Office of Utility Consumer Counselor (OUCC). Recall the Times’ recent report about OUCC intervention on behalf of Merrillville’s citizenry. Following a professional analysis of an Indiana-American proposal for a 17.5 percent water rate hike, the OUCC negotiated settlement with I-A for a total 7.9 percent hike over next two years.
Now, instead of the consumer protection routinely brought to bear by Indiana’s OUCC, Hammond’s potable water rates and other issues of water department finances will default to the city’s common council members.
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The problem here is in the past critical scrutiny of the city’s water utility rates and finances were the sole province and duty of the IURC, OUCC and the city’s water works department. Indeed, the OUCC website states it is staffed by some 50 experienced professionals including attorneys, analysts, engineers, and additional employees to assist and represent Indiana’s ratepayer interests in state regulatory proceedings.
By contrast, consumer protection by the Hammond city council will be woefully inadequate.
George Stoya, Hammond