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Lawmaker seeks relief for fed-up water customers

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As citizens of Zionsville, residents of the Royal Run subdivision have had little recourse against the Whitestown-owned water utility that charges them 78 percent more than its customers to the north.

That might change if freshman lawmaker Steve Braun gets his way. Braun’s bill, which would allow out-of-town municipal water and sewer customers to petition the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for rate relief, passed the Senate 40-10 on April 10. The bill earlier passed the House, 70-28.

“It’s really a taxation without representation, or rate paying without representation,” said Braun, a Republican representative from Zionsville.  

Whitestown Town Manager Tom Combiths said the utility is not taking advantage of its out-of-town customers. The 700 homeowners of Royal Run do pay much more, but that higher rate also applies to about 1,000 customers who reside in the southern portion of Whitestown, he noted.

“This is kind of unprecedented to involve local water and sewer utilities operated by municipalities, to get them involved in the IURC,” Combiths said.

Whitestown historically had two systems: the north end that used well water and the south end that bought water from Indianapolis. Although all the water now comes from Citizens Energy Group, north-end users pay $23.94 for the first 2,000 gallons, while users on the south section pay $42.63 for the same amount. Basic sewage rates are $37.04 for both systems.

Monthly bills for water, sewage and hydrant fees in Royal Run and the south section of Whitestown often run $120 or more, residents say.

Many municipal-owned utilities serve areas outside their boundaries. They can raise rates without the IURC’s review, and it’s not unheard of for the difference between in-town and out-of-town rates to be 15 percent or more.

This also isn’t the first time the Legislature has intervened in the issue. Under a law passed in 2012, anytime a rate increase makes the difference greater than 15 percent, out-of-town customers can petition the IURC for review.

The 2012 law doesn’t apply to Whitestown because the current rates have been in effect for several years. Braun’s bill allows out-of-town customers who pay more than 50 percent than any in-town customer to petition the IURC.

Braun isn’t sure how many utilities have a difference of more than 50 percent, but he said, “This wasn’t just a Whitestown bill.”

Rhonda Cook, director of government affairs for the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, said rate differences are generally fair. In many cases, they came about because a developer asked the city or town to extend water lines to a new subdivision in an unincorporated area.

“Developers ask to receive services, and they agree to pay a price,” Cook said.  

Homeowners may get fed up with their rates, but they often resist annexation at the same time, Cook said. “It really becomes an unfairness to the people that live in the city or town because they’re having to subsidize the outside users.”

Royal Run is in a somewhat unique situation because it’s already part of Zionsville. The neighborhood originally was served by a private utility, Boone County Utilities LLC, which went bankrupt.

Whitestown bought the utility in 2004 for $10 million. The cost of that acquisition is one factor in the rates that apply to the so-called south system, Combiths said.

The Indiana Association of Cities and Towns managed to secure one amendment to Braun’s bill that may avert expensive legal fees and rate studies that go along with an IURC review. Disgruntled customers must take their case to the city or town before petitioning the IURC.

Combiths hopes the whole process will be unnecessary. The town is conducting a rate study and plans to erase the price gap between its north and south systems this year, he said.  

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  • Support the bill
    Stay focused people and keep they eye on the prize. This is not just a Zville/Whitesown issue. The real issue is all about a group of people having no path of remonstrance against an oppressive practice by another, and the precedent, once in place, will actually help other Hoosiers in the future. How? Municipalities considering the purchase of a utility will now have to account for ther rate pricing plans in their bids, and it will more likely keep them in check ON THE FRONT END. They will know going in that their actions will be checked, and have to plan accordingly, versus this Boss Hogg mentality that Whitestown has been foisting upon RRun residents for much too long. The real issue is RRun residents HAVE been seeking relief from Whitestown's pricing practices since day one, and Whitestown has not been accountable to any other entity to answer for this (ie black hole). I am most proud of Mr. Braun. A politician who came to his constituents' community, listened to their concerns, and took action to represent their position in a meaningful way (without conditioning for more taxes to do it). Kinda how its supposed to work!
  • They filled their eyes first
    It's worth mentioning that Whitestown Utilities way overbidded the other 2 utilities that were wanting to take over the then defunct Royal Run Utilities...quite possibly because they had their eyes on the Anson Community, which has not progress as quickly as once anticipated. So someone else needs to pay for their miscalculation. That is one of our main concerns, that we are stuck in the middle of an investment gone wrong, with no avail, because...like we said, no representation, don't ask, don't tell.
  • Absolute Travesty
    Hey Whitestown...Do we pay these appalling rates because Royal Run fought off your attempt at annexation several years ago? Are we being punished for not wanting to become Whitetown's southern suburb, and participate in your glorious scheme to build a NASCAR track? (It's true, look it up.) Or is it the fact that the proposed Anson development mever materialized, and you were left holding the note for your incredibly poor business decision to spend $10 million on a water utility? Is RR the convenient scapegoat that pays your bills? Oh, wait...YES WE ARE; "Whitestown bought the utility in 2004 for $10 million. The cost of that acquisition is one factor in the rates that apply to the so-called south system, Combiths said."
  • Water bill
    Thank you Mr. Braun for helping us! We have lived in RR for 11 years. Our water/sewer bills were high from the beginning, but have continued to go up! We were told that after Whitestown bought the utility, they would go down, but instead, they have added fees and raised our rates! I sure hope our rates go down. It will not satisfy us to have them raise the rates of everyone, to make them equal!
  • On the Sly
    Whitestown Utilities fails to bring all the facts to the table. They have been delaying the rate study, it has been going on almost 18 months. During that time they have been using the reserves from the utility to loan and finance real estate for the poor town of Whitestown. Recently they discussed purchasing the old HS with the reserves. I thought reserves were supposed to be liquid. People of Royal Run did not get a vote in this abuse of our hard earned money paid to the utility. Mr. Combiths please tell me again how the town of Whitestown has subsidized outsiders. When the town purchased the bankrupt utility we were promised rate relief. Royal Run was there long before the town could even afford pavement repairs on the main street. You are a joke sir.
    • 2nd Highest in the Nation?
      Please... Someone help finally. Thank you Steve Braun and whomever else can take this issue to task and bring fairness to customers of this monopoly. Royal Run was my family's farm. I take pride in this community. After living out west for several years I moved our family into Royal Run in 2009. Wow! Were we ever surprised as a family of three to have our water/sewer bill average $150-175 or more! We were not alone. We did all we could from having the utility examine our meter and monitor usage to engage with residents and agencies in 2009-2011 but to no avail. We did no lawn watering, no car washing and family member #3 was a 4 yr. old. Our rates were the SECOND HIGHEST IN THE NATION to Santa Fe, NM per circleofblue.org. Do people realize what they have to do to in the desert Southwest to deliver water to CA, AZ, NV, etc? ...piping it in from the Colorado River, Lake Mead or the Sierra snowmelt. And here we are in Indiana paying these rates! Something was and is still wrong...very wrong. Some say just move why don't you? No one should have to leave a very nice, conveniently located 700 home development because of their water rates. No lawmaker should have to look far to see Whitestown Municipal Utilities (WMU) paid an exorbitant amount for the bankrupt Boone County Utility in hopes of a windfall from Anson development which has been slowed by years because of the recession. By skirting the IURC's oversite is it really open season to charge these rates? Maybe thus far WMU has been inside the law. Well damn it, change the laws. The good people of Royal Run have been held hostage by WMU long enough.
    • I hope this does cause action..
      Erasing the price gap? Whitestown Town Manager Tom Combiths, keep your promise. Of course, that may very well mean that the North and South customers will pay the higher rates. I've owned a home in Royal Run for ten years and in some ways, regret that I moved into this mess. Thank you Representative Steve Braun for taking up the fight for us. I know we have never had much success with lawmakers looking out for us, over the years.
    • not taking advantage?
      First - thank you, Steve Braun! Royal Run residents have been taken advantage of since the development of our neighborhood. We have paid & paid & paid our premium, not to mention NEW meters and other equipment whenever the utility deems it necessary. The whole concept was that once additional development took place that RR residents would get pricing relief. Just the opposite - the utility (whether BOONE or W'town) has continued to collect exhorbitant fees while their customer base grows at rapid rates. An aside - the sewer fee in Royal Run is about DOUBLE the figure quoted in this article. The figure of $120/month is the least amount i've ever seen on a water bill in my 13 years as a resident. Frankly, I'd like to see Citizens take over this travesty of a utility - it has never belonged in the domain of town ownership. Annexation, taxation - ALL without representation - is what you get from the great town of Whitestown and their cronies.

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