Huber Ridge resident Dennis Fletcher stood at the podium last week to voice his complaints about a requested rate increase by Ohio American Water.

Huber Ridge resident Dennis Fletcher stood at the podium last week to voice his complaints about a requested rate increase by Ohio American Water.

As he spoke at a public hearing held by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Fletcher placed a plastic zip-top bag on the podium containing rust-colored dust. The dust, he said, came from the bottom of his four-month-old, 50-gallon water tank.

"I don't mind paying good money for a good product," Fletcher told PUCO representatives. "But I refuse to pay top dollar for a bargain-basement product."

Fletcher was one of more than 250 Ohio American customers who attended the hearing Aug. 20 in Westerville.

The 20-plus customers who spoke during the meeting complained of poor water quality, bad customer service, high rates and sewer problems.

Ohio American Water filed a request with PUCO last November for a 30-percent rate increase for Franklin County customers.

PUCO staffers reviewed records and documents submitted by the company and provided a report to commissioners. The hearing was the final of four held for Ohio American customers to address the proposed rate increase.

Many residents at last week's meeting said they won't drink the water, cook with it or give it to pets because of its odor and flavor.

Others said they're left with white residue after washing their dishes or cars, and reported rust stains on shower curtains, ceilings and towels.

Huber Ridge Area Association president James Welch acknowledged that water quality varies by street in the areas that purchase Ohio American Water.

Welch said his biggest concern is the price, especially after the company was granted a 14-percent rate increase in March 2007 and allowed to increase rates in 2003 and 2006.

To save on water bills in his home, Welch testified during the hearing that he had installed three low-flush toilets, spent extra money on front-load washers and used low-flow shower heads.

Despite that, water still costs more than it would for customers of Westerville or Columbus, Welch said.

Welch placed three jars of water before PUCO representatives, who said there was no discernable difference among the three. The samples came from a Huber Ridge resident, a Columbus home and a Westerville home, Welch said.

"If you can't see a difference in water, why is there such a huge difference in our prices?" Welch asked.

Sue Hale also voiced complaints over the price paid by Ohio American customers. Hale, like many others who spoke, said she and her family do all they can to conserve water and don't water the lawn and sparingly water the garden.

She said the commission needs to be sensitive to subdivision residents who are bound by their deeds to use Ohio American Water.

"We have no choice," Hale said. "If we live there, we have to use the water. We have no bargaining position."

Sunbury Woods resident Paul Hanly said he's seen requests for rate increases come up again and again for Ohio American Water customers, and each time, Hanly said, concerns about poor water quality are brought up but rates are approved.

"Every time we go through this, we just kind of take it on the chin a little more," Hanly said. "The point is, it just keeps going up and up and up."

In addition to the hearing, Ohio American Water customers in Westerville subdivisions have opposed the rate increase by submitting more than 100 letters to the PUCO, Welch said, and more than 600 residents signed a petition opposing the increase.

The Ohio Consumers' Council also has filed objections with the PUCO regarding the requested rate increase and Ohio American Water's expenses, revenues, profits, service quality and rate structure submitted in the company's request.

Information about the Ohio American Water request can be found by searching for case number 07-1112-WS-AIR at www.PUCO.ohio.gov.