by ANDY SEVILLA
Black fire hydrants will remain a concern for residents living in northeast Kyle. Water provider Monarch has said it will not color code fire hydrants capable of providing adequate water pressure to extinguish fire emergencies in their neighborhood.
Typically, a black fire hydrant indicates it has insufficient water pressure. But not necessarily in this case.
In an effort to protect themselves legally and financially, Monarch said it will keep its fire hydrants in Kyle black, following a decision by Hays County Emergency Services District No. 5 (ESD) to reject a contract releasing the investor-owned utility from liability of damages.
In a Memorandum of Understanding, Monarch, a subsidiary of the California-based SouthWest Water Co., sought exculpation from liabilities for fire-related injuries or damages to persons or property caused by the lack of water or water pressure during fire emergencies.
A recent study commissioned by the private utility indicated that Monarch had adequate water flow to fight fires in portions of the area they service in Kyle, and the water company offered to repaint functioning hydrants and cover up those that are not working, as long as they were immune from responsibilities during fire emergencies.
Monarch stated in the memo that it “does not provide fire protection or suppression service, (thus) Monarch System is not designed for such uses and may not always be capable of supplying water in sufficient capacity for fire fighting.”
And now, due to the ESD’s rejection of the proposal, Monarch will keep its hydrants black.
Monarch representative Gary Rose said in an email he was “disappointed” with the Oct. 24 ESD unanimous vote rejecting the water company’s plan.
“This would have been good for the community and could have resulted in reduced home insurance coverage premiums over time for area residents. Monarch is disappointed in the outcome of the hearing and as stated at the meeting, willing to work on mutually acceptable liability language for the (Memorandum of Understanding),” Rose said in an email before declining calls for further comment.
Kyle Fire Chief Glenn Whitaker said that aside from Monarch’s release of liability for damages, the predominant reason for ESD’s rejection was the clause that held the fire department responsible for payment of damages to Monarch’s equipment during fire fighting, suppression activities and pressure testing for flows.
Whitaker said his office deals with several water distribution systems in Hays County, and his department does not “have anything signed with them. We just use their equipment for fire fighting and they take care of business.”
For years, area residents have lodged complaints to the city against Monarch’s subpar fire protection, lack of customer service and poor water quality, according to city officials. About 900 Kyle residents in the Amberwood and Indian Paintbrush subdivisions live in Monarch’s Certificate of Convenience and Necessity (CCN).
A CCN is assigned by the state and it identifies who will service the water needs of that region. CCNs guarantee water monopolies to both public and private water companies, as long as the utility services everybody in their designated region and meet state regulations.
Newly re-elected State Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) said that in his two years in office, he’s received “overwhelming” concern from his constituents regarding investor-owned utility companies.
Isaac said the loudest complaint has been rate increases, and in Kyle, water price disparities between the approximate 900 Monarch customers and the rest of the city are considerable.
After attaining approval for a 14 percent rate increase, Monarch’s average water bill will be about $74 in January, compared to about a $47 water bill for Kyle residents serviced by the city in the same month.
Monarch received approval for the rate increase in the spring after the city, along with other municipalities, reached an agreement with the water company settling the rate much lower than the originally requested 62 percent price hike.
City officials have pressed Monarch on customer service, water quality and rate hikes, going so far as proposing a regulatory agreement demanding the private utility address resident complaints and improve its overall service. The city’s proposed contract also called for a cap on rate hikes to a maximum of five percent once every five years.
The city pushed this agreement in an effort to address residents’ complaints and regulate Monarch in exchange for ceasing city attempts for dual certification, buying the company out, or even condemnation, all of which could be costly and stretch out for years.
Municipalities also are allowed to file petitions with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) calling for revocations of CCNs. To get a CCN revoked, cities have to prove the private utility has never provided service, is no longer providing service, is incapable of providing service or has failed to provide continuous and adequate service.
In a Nov. 8 email to the city’s water attorney Mike Gershon, City Manager Lanny Lambert said Monarch would accept the city’s proposed agreement barring the water rate hike proposal. Lambert said Monarch proposed a counter-offer of a maximum rate hike cap of 12.5 percent per year.
Since August 2008, TCEQ has received six area-customer complaints ranging from low water pressure, poor water quality and debris in the lines.
Isaac said he’s studying up on investor-owned utilities and the options that exist. He said he believes in a free market, but he wasn’t prepared to publically support the dismantling of water monopolies in the state and push for dual certification without seeing any proposed legislation.
One thing Isaac was certain about is the need to keep private water companies from implementing rate hikes without state approval. He said legislation failed last year that would have prevented rate increases from taking effect before TCEQ authorized the proposed cost jumps, and not actualize as soon as they are filed with the state.
Isaac also took issue with rate hearings taking, at times, two years for a conclusion. He said the process needs to be revamped so that private utility customers can expect state authorized price increases with more expediency and not have to pay the company’s proposed rate increase, which often are monumental, while the hearings drag out.