As far as Blendon Township residents are concerned, the Ohio Consumer's Counsel is anything but a watchdog against utility rate increases.

As far as Blendon Township residents are concerned, the Ohio Consumer's Counsel is anything but a watchdog against utility rate increases.

Residents sought help from the OCC in an attempt to block a requested rate increase by Ohio American Water. More than 250 people attended an Aug. 20 public hearing on the proposal and the OCC filed several objections with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio related to Ohio American Water expenses, revenues, profits, service quality and rate structure as proposed in the company's request.

But in the end, the OCC was party to a Sept. 9 agreement with Ohio American Water, the PUCO staff and others that would increase water rates for customers in Franklin and Portage counties by 30.37 percent --

more than the 30 percent originally sought by Ohio American Water for residential water customers in Franklin County.

The agreement also includes wastewater rate increases of 36.94 percent.

"It's going to kill our community," said township resident Pam Clegg. "What could possess them to have the audacity to raise the rate, when (previous rate increases) were already way out of line? It's just so unfair, it's burdensome and oppressive."

PUCO spokeswoman Shana Eiselstein noted that the agreement has not been approved by PUCO commissioners and there is no timeline established to do so.

"In terms of the PUCO staff, that is a separate party from the commissioners," she said. "Just because staff agreed (to the stipulations) is not necessarily an indication that the commissioners will as well.

"The agreement has been filed with the PUCO, but we don't have a timeline for that yet."

Blendon Township trustee Stew Flaherty said the fact that the agreed-to rate increase is higher than requested tops trustees' list of concerns. "For a watchdog like the OCC --that is supposed to be for the public -- to totally shaft the public with a rate increase greater than what they asked for the last time, we just can't believe it," he said.

"What's most discouraging is that over the years, we've asked for better water quality and it hasn't been delivered, but the price has continued to go up," said trustee Jerry Ward. "I've reached an age where very little surprises me, but I continue to be disappointed."

According to OCC spokesman Anthony Dill, the agreement will put additional stipulations on Ohio American Water. It calls for the company to change its disconnection notices to clearly differentiate them from monthly bills and to include information on medical certification.

The water company also will not disconnect service unless a customer owes more than $75. It will conduct a study to determine the causes of water lost through leaks in its system and develop ways to reduce such losses.

Customers will not be charged for the chemical and power costs associated with unaccounted for water that exceeds 15 percent, Dill said. In addition, he said Ohio American Water will , in its next application for a rate increase, include a proposal for a step-increase program that will spread any increase over a number of years.

Improvements specific to Huber Ridge include water treatment measures to improve water quality, plus a $3,000 per month credit to all customers if the company does not meet the agreed-upon finished water quality standards.

Flaherty said that while claims of water quality improvements have been made, residents still regularly come to the trustees with complaints.

"The horror stories still exist There are still people that can show you the stains left by the water," he said. "It's better than it was, but have they got their whole system cleaned up? No."

Flaherty said that aside from petitioning the governor and other representatives, the trustees' options are limited.

"The water in that area comes out of wells. It's not like its Columbus' system and piped through. Even if we looked at buying the system, it would penalize the residents," he said. "What we would have to charge the customers would be worse than the rate increases.

"We could seek annexation to Westerville or Columbus, but Westerville doesn't have the capacity (to provide water to Blendon Township), and really, most of the residents don't want to be Columbus," Flaherty said. "We're proud of being Blendon, and we provide local services for local residents."