Johnson Utilities

PHOENIX — Much-needed improvements to the infrastructure of a Pinal County utility may be on their way in the next few years, despite there being some confusion as to who will ultimately foot the bill for those repairs.

On Thursday, the Arizona Corporation Commission approved a capital improvement plan for the water and wastewater facilities owned by Johnson Utilities and operated by interim manager EPCOR Water. Officials said repairs, spread over most all of the JU facilities, will be in excess of $100 million.

But exactly who ultimately is responsible for footing the bill was left undecided. EPCOR Vice President of Operations Troy Day said the company currently has $18.5 million in the bank for the improvements, far less than what will be needed. The order of priorities for spending the money will vary and hasn’t been fully determined.

The projects on the plan were determined by engineers from EPCOR and include a mix of improvements that officials say are desperately needed — either from disrepair, for maximum operability or because officials from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality say maintenance is needed for health and safety reasons.

But an attorney for Johnson Utilities, Jeffrey Crockett, questioned some of the items on the plan, such as additional wells to service two sections of the utility’s coverage area, saying the wells aren’t needed in the three-year period and said his client would not want to be burdened by the expense for unnecessary improvements that may or may not get a funding mechanism during a future rate case.

Day, however, quickly dismissed those claims saying, “We’re not going to build something that’s not needed. Those suspicions are unfounded.”

Commissioners were set to discuss and vote on the capital improvement plan last week. However, attorneys for Johnson Utilities applied for a temporary restraining order to prevent commissioners from discussing the plan. A judge dismissed the arguments, resulting in Thursday’s vote.

Sandra Kennedy, who began serving on the ACC in January, blasted Crockett for his attempts to get the restraining order against the commission, noting that Johnson Utilities and owner George Johnson have a history of filing lawsuits at whim rather than complying with the commission’s orders.

Prior to voting, Commissioner Justin Olson said approving the plan makes sense for the residents of San Tan Valley, in part due to an on-going meter management system on new construction, because “the utility can’t produce the demand.”

In October, the commission enacted a moratorium on new water and wastewater hookups for all new construction in areas serviced by Johnson. However, in November members voted to allow a limited number of water meters to be available to new home builders and buyers per month. That partial meter management system still is in place.

The exact improvements and the order in which they’re to be completed will be relayed to Johnson customers once the plan is finalized.