Some Gatlinburg wildfire survivors, homeowners could see utility rate hike

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) – Residents of the Chalet Village area of Gatlinburg could soon see a big increase in their utility costs. Tennessee Water Service, Inc., or TWS, is a private utility firm.The company petitioned in September to add what they’re calling an “Interim Emergency Wildfire Restoration Surcharge” to their customers’ monthly bill.

TWS says they’re losing a lot of revenue after November 2016’s wildfires. If this petition is approved, a customer’s monthly cost would go up by $11 if they’re active utility customers, from $58.60 to $69.15.

To read the petition filed to the state Public Utility Commission, click here.

If a homeowner is an inactive utility customer, essentially disconnected service because of rebuilding, they too will see an increase from $0 to $24.81. Tennessee Water Service says they put a hold on all bills for customers who lost their homes in the wildfires, but outstanding balances and normal billing resumed March 31, 2017.

TWS supplies water just to Chalet Village North. Before the wildfires, they estimated servicing 580 homes, but after the firestorm, only 57 connections remained.

Every so often Peter Jucker comes back to his property off Wiley Oakley Drive to check on the water meters. Jucker explained Wednesday he’d recently gotten a letter from Tennessee Water Service.

“I looked at it and at first glance, it’s not awful. It’s not great,” he said.

The company shared their possible rate increases with homeowners in that letter. If approved by the state’s Public Utility Commission, customers could be paying more for up to 18 months.

“It’s not out of line as far as the amount that they’re charging. It’s just that some people really can’t afford it and are going to have a hard time paying a water bill they have no use for,” said Jucker.

TWS estimates about 133 homes in the Chalet Village North community are using water. Leaders of the Chalet Village Homeowners Association have been meeting with TWS to express their concerns and have questions answered.

“Since the wildfire they’ve increased the number of usable fire hydrants in Chalet Village North from 15 to 25, which down the road for insurance rating purposes will be a big bonus,” said HOA President Ken Webster.

The Consumer Protection and Advocate Division of the state’s Attorney General’s Office has filed a petition to intervene on this possible increase. A hearing is scheduled for October 23, where three members of the state’s Public Utility Commission will make a final ruling.

“Just because it’s being proposed doesn’t mean they’ll get it, but they are a business that is for profit,” said Webster.

“Insult to injury? Yeah and possibly unfair, but it’s probably something that’s needed to keep us going with the water infrastructure,” said Jucker.

Tennessee Water Service President Matthew Klein has not yet responded to a request for comment.

The City of Gatlinburg adds TWS is a customer of the Gatlinburg Water System. The city is not involved in the restoration of the water service in Chalet Village North.

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