More than 250 Ohio American Water customers, primarily from Blendon Township, crowded Faith Covenant Church Thursday night to voice their opposition to the company's requested water-rate increase.

More than 250 Ohio American Water customers, primarily from Blendon Township, crowded Faith Covenant Church Thursday night to voice their opposition to the company's requested water-rate increase.

More than 30 people testified before the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) during the three-hour public hearing, sharing stories about the poor quality of water, bad customer service and high water bills they receive from Ohio American Water.

Their testimony will help the PUCO decide whether to grant a 27-percent water-rate increase, along with wastewater-rate increase, requested by Ohio American Water last June.

A PUCO staff report issued in November calls for granting an increase of between 4 and 7 percent, but customers who spoke Thursday said rates are so much higher than surrounding communities that they should be lowered, not raised.

"I've heard people say that our water is twice the price, but I've looked up the numbers, and I've found it to be three times the price," Sunbury Woods resident Jean Gerardi said.

Gerardi, who has lived in Sunbury Woods for 20 years, said she has all low-energy appliances and low-water fixtures and has grown accustomed to hearing stories of neighbors who only shower a few times a week in order to conserve water.

"It reminds me of stories my grandmother would tell me; they would only bathe on Saturday night because it was bath night," Gerardi said.

And though she's a longtime resident, Gerardi said she knows the high Ohio American Water rates and continual rate increases eventually will lead her to leave her neighborhood.

"I will not retire there," she said. "I already know that I have to do something to move, to sell my home, to take whatever loss I have to take and leave so I can budget, so I can handle my finances."

Huber Ridge resident Stephen Wood said he, too, is familiar with water-saving measures and the crunch that Ohio American Water rates put on his neighborhood.

He said he and his wife, the only two people in the household, don't water their lawns. When they shower, they lather up first, then turn the water on to rinse.

"With just the two of us, we go through considerable effort to conserve water. We believe that's an environmental concern as well as, now, an economic concern," Wood said. "All the things you can think of to do, we do."

Even with that, he said his monthly water bills average about $125.

The water rates put a crunch on those who don't usually struggle with bills, Wood said, such as middle class residents with multiple-income households.

"This community, I believe, is being held hostage by Ohio American Water," he said. "Because we have no options to choose from, it, for many people, becomes a social justice issue. For the elderly, for single moms, for young families just starting out: Those are the people who can't afford to live in the community."

In addition to cost, many residents testified about poor water quality.

A white powdery residue, orange shower curtains, black streaks of scum and grayed clothing all were problems reported by residents during the hearing.

Huber Ridge resident Richel Maier said during her testimony that she's had brown water come out her faucets and water that has an odd smell to it.

"When our daughter went to preschool, I was so excited, and I wanted to dress her in cute outfits every day, and I would bathe her every night in brown water. I would call and they would say, 'It's just water, it won't hurt her,'" Maier said. "When you pay $202 a month, you shouldn't have to tell your 5-year-old daughter that it's OK to bathe in brown water and you shouldn't have to be told on the phone that it's just rust."

Amiee Board said in addition to dealing with higher-than-average water bills, Ohio American Water customers also have to frequently replace appliances that are destroyed by the low-quality water.

Board said she's getting ready to replace her 6-year-old dishwasher, which is rusted and falling apart. In the 10 years she's been in her home, she said she's purchased three washing machines.

With ruined appliances, an orange shower curtain, black stains and a powdery residue all caused by the water, Board said she's concerned about the effect that Ohio American Water has on her family.

"This is what my kids eat. This is what my kids drink. This is what my kids bathe in. It's what they run through in the summer, when I can afford it," Board said. "I just don't understand why we pay so much for this."

Thursday night's hearing was the last of five held by the PUCO on Ohio American Water's requested rate increase.

Following the hearings, those involved in the case can file briefs with the commission relating to the rate request. A PUCO attorney will then review the case and make a recommendation to the five-member commission.

The commission will review the case and the recommendation and then issue a decision, but the PUCO has not said how soon a decision can be expected.