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More than a dozen Golden State Water Co. customers expressed concern Tuesday night during a public hearing about the utility's proposed double-digit rate hikes.

The hearing, held by the California Public Utilities Commission at the Santa Maria Library, gave customers the opportunity to directly address Golden State Water representatives regarding their proposal to generate $55 million in additional revenue through a series of rate hikes introduced over a three-year period starting January 2019.

Gerald Kelly, the administrative law judge who presided over Tuesday's public hearing, said Golden State Water requested the $55 million increase to rates last July, and expects the Public Utilities Commission to make a decision on the matter this December. The decision will be based on evidence collected at public hearings and briefs submitted on behalf of the utility and Office of Ratepayer Advocates — the consumer advocate tasked with obtaining the lowest possible rate for customers.

A copy of the request provided by the Public Utilities Commission indicates that water rates in the Santa Maria service area (which encompasses portions of Nipomo, Orcutt, Sisquoc and other unincorporated areas in northern Santa Barbara County) could increase by 26.15 percent over a three-year period ending in 2021. Jon Pierotti, regulatory affairs manager for Golden State Water, said the increase was calculated based on the needs of customers within the service area.

"As we prepare our rate case, we make an estimate of what our expenses and our costs will be for the year we are setting rates," he explained, citing a need for infrastructure improvements and an increase to tax liabilities (both federal and state).

"When looking at Santa Maria and Los Osos combined [service areas,] we have proposed approximately $23 million in infrastructure investments, including construction work in progress, over the next three years," Pierotti said. "This includes $12 million for water supply projects ... and $6.5 million for the replacement for aging distribution pipelines."

Ting-pong Yuen, program and project supervisor with the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, said the department is currently evaluating Golden State's proposal and will issue a staff report with recommendations Feb. 16.

"One of the key responsibilities the commission has it to periodically evaluate rates that are being charged by utilities," he said. "This evaluation not only determines whether those rates are reasonable for consumers and ratepayers but, also, ensures that the utility has sufficient revenue to provide reliable and safe services."

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With close to 50 people in attendance, a handful of Golden State customers took turns addressing representatives from all three agencies. Sharon Amott, a 20-year Orcutt resident, said she attended Tuesday's hearing to ask Golden State representatives for relief from what she believes to be rapidly climbing water rates.

"We've already conserved all we can," she said. "We look like a ghetto; nobody has any grass — we're all weeds and sand. Rate increases will reduce our ability to spend and contribute to the economy."

Ismael Martinez, a new Orcutt resident, said he was astonished by the rate Golden State Water was charging for service.

"They're actually higher than my old rates," he said. "I was paying $35 in the city of Santa Maria; now I'm paying closer to $45 for the same amount of water. It's a little bit ridiculous."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.