By Mark Waite
The Nevada Public Utilities Commission, after a 16-month investigation, found Utilities Inc. of Central Nevada addressed odor problems at sewer plant No. 3, provided alternatives to payments in person and had reasonable connection fees.
The findings dated Nov. 6 state: “The commission finds that, based on the investigation and hearing UICN offers sufficient alternatives to customers for paying their bills, UICN’s late payment fees and connection fees are consistent with other water utilities in the Pahrump area and UICN appears to be taking appropriate steps to address the odor problems related to WWTP-3 and lift station No. 3.”
UICN estimated it would cost $77,482 to hire two full-time customer service representatives to accept payments in person, $41,601 for a drop box and $57,264 for a pilot program with a full-time and a part-time employee and a drop box.
The Bureau of Consumer Protection recommended UICN provide a method for customers to pay bills locally, without incurring an additional fee of 88 cents at Walmart or $2 at Community DSH. The bureau was concerned the pay stations don’t take checks. Consumer Protection disputed the UICN cost estimates and added the company could install an electronic payment kiosk used by a number of utility companies like Southwest Gas and Cox Communications.
“These limitations leave the subset of the population that lacks a bank account or a credit/debit card in a vulnerable or disadvantaged position,” the bureau said.
The BCP added payment by mail and automatic draft were the only option that don’t involve additional transaction fees. They said mail sent to Maine could take up to a week and UICN hasn’t identified any options that provide immediate credit to an account without a fee.
UICN said about one-fourth of all payments received were late, the company allows 20 days from the date the bill is issued until the due date. The late customers were charged a $10 late fee in 2011 that was billed to 12,676 payments, bringing in $126,760. UICN said that late fee was typical of utility companies and said they allow an extra five days for payment than other utilities.
More than half the UICN customers sent their payments by mail to Lewiston, Maine. But UICN testified if a customer faced service disconnection and paid through a local pay station, by phone or the Internet, they could call UICN with the payment confirmation number on their receipt to stop a disconnect.
Public Utilities Commission staff acknowledged some customers had problems paying bills, especially given the timing. But they said the cost to reinstall bill payments at the Pahrump office would amount to $16 per transaction, although if the 300 customers expected to use this option were spread out among all residential customers, it would drop to 97 cents per month for each customer.
“UICN does offer a variety of payment options that are low cost or free if the customer is willing to make payments through their bank. Staff also asserts that opening the office for the convenience of a possibly small percentage of customers to make last minute payments has to be balanced against the costs that will be spread over the entire customer base,” the PUC report states.
Utilities Inc. said customers making payments in person would expect services they received prior to March 2010, like answers to billing questions, account reviews and complaints.
“The commission finds that reinstating bill payment services at the UICN Pahrump office is not just or reasonable,” the report states.
After a complaint at a Pahrump hearing, the PUC investigated connection costs. It found the UICN connection rates — from $2,510 to $3,200 — and the meter installation fee of $218 to $446 reflect the cost to provide the service. The PUC said the Southern Nevada Water Authority charges $4,870 on all new services.
Whether UICN can charge $350 for an out-of-state consultant to review reversionary maps should be decided in the next rate case, which will be in December.
UICN was ordered to produce updates on an odor control pilot program for lift station No. 3, produce state agency orders on the Willow Creek ponds and golf course, along with check lists for operating sewer plant No. 3 and the lift station.
UICN stated it received five odor complaints in 2011, three were traced to lift station No. 3, near Blagg and Comstock Roads. UICN believes sewer plant no. 3 receives odor complaints because it receives effluent from downtown and food service establishments, because it’s closer to residences and because of media attention on Willow Creek golf course.
A pilot program using an ozone and oxygen injection process reduced hydrogen sulfide concentrations 90 percent at the lift station and 45 percent at the sewer plant, the PUC report said. But the cost to construct the treatment system would be $269,954.
PUC staff said that after sewage flows increased from the Nevada Southern Detention Center in October 2010 along with flows from half the restaurants in Pahrump, lift station No. 3 wasn’t upgraded, the increase in hydrogen sulfide gas may have overwhelmed the original equipment.
The PUC said heat can also saturate the dry air media scrubber reducing its effectiveness in reducing odors at the lift station.
The head works and equalization basin will produce some level of odor at the sewer plant, but the costs to enclose all these processes would be expensive, about the same to construct a new sewer plant, the PUC said.
The commission said UICN has a three-pronged strategy in place to reduce odors in the lift station and sewer plant: continuing the fats oils and grease FOG program for restaurants; results of the odor control program appear to be promising; and check lists for the sewer plant and lift station should provide the PUC with information to determine whether they’re being operated properly.
The rate case, due in December, also needs to contain testimony on late payment fees, connection fees, convenience fees for bill payments and actions taken to address the odor problems, the PUC said.