During an out-of-cycle emergency work session held Tuesday afternoon, the Montana Public Service Commission unanimously approved the launch of an investigation into North Star Water & Sewer, setting a show cause hearing for Sep. 11.
Residents of North Star subdivision in the Helena Valley had their water supply shut off on at least two separate occasions between Sunday evening and Monday morning, though reports of intermittent service from residents vary.
An email sent from North Star Water & Sewer to residents of the subdivision and obtained by the Independent Record notified them of an "emergency service disruption" effective Aug. 30 from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily "until further notice."
"We realize this letter is likely reaching you after the service disruption was implemented," the email states.
Signage advising of a water service disruption was posted at the subdivision's entrance, but during public comment at Tuesday's meeting, one resident described the signs as "finger painted" and unclear.
The PSC ruled in early August that the owners of the subdivision's water and sewer infrastructure must reduce its rates. North Star Water & Sewer initially requested permission to charge residents as much as $270 a month, citing maintenance costs, although said they would cap rates at $95 per month. Residents had been paying about $70 per month, but the PSC lowered that to about $56 per month.
In light of the recent PSC decision, Derek Oestreicher, a North Star homeowner and attorney who intervened in the case, said during Tuesday's meeting the service disruption "feels very retaliatory."
North Star Water & Sewer is expected to appeal the PSC order.
"The rate case that North Star was involved in took 10 years to come to some semblance of a conclusion, and apparently North Star intends to appeal your decision that was just handed down a couple of weeks ago," Oestricher told the PSC on Tuesday. "I would hope that North Star would instead of spending money on lawyers to raise the rates in this neighborhood, that they would spend money to provide a reasonably adequate service and reasonably adequate facilities."
A member of the commission's legal counsel Luke Casey proposed the show cause order and investigation and recommended approval.
Casey said he does not think that staff has the facts before it to determine whether or not the circumstances that led to the water shutoff met legal criteria. Per commission rules, a utility is allowed to shut off service to customers in the event of an unavoidable emergency or accident.
"If the circumstances that led to the water restrictions do not constitute an unavoidable emergency or accident, I think that staff believes we're in a situation where it likely implicates North Star's duty to provide reasonably adequate service," he said. "If that's the case, I think the commission needs to think about what other potential avenues are out there for North Star to control water use that may be less onerous than this particular measure, whether North Star should be subject to civil penalties for violating that obligation to serve, and in addition, getting to the bottom of what triggered this water shortage and what may have been done prior to that to alleviate the problem."
Representatives of North Star were present for the online meeting, but provided no comment and were not asked for comment.
In a previous interview with the Independent Record, North Star Water & Sewer co-owner Doug Peterson said the utility had struggled with enforcing residential water limits in the subdivision, which caused tanks to run low and pumps to burn out.
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