Liberty Utilities, which provides drinking water to approximately 15,800 residential, commercial, industrial and others in Pine Bluff, White Hall and the surrounding area, is proposing a substantial rate hike for its customers, according to documents filed with the Arkansas Public Service Commission.

The commission must approve the rate increase before it can take effect.

In documents filed with the Arkansas Public Service Commission, Liberty officials say they are proposing a 29.53 percent increase for residential customers, which amounts to around an $8.07 hike in monthly bills.

Liberty is proposing a 30.22 percent increase for commercial users and a 10.28 percent increase for industrial users.

In 2015, Liberty customers had a more than 12 percent hike in their bills. The utility had initially asked for a 28 percent rate increase that year but amended the increase request after backlash from businesses and residents.

White Hall is fighting back against the increase proposal.

In a news release, White Hall Mayor Noel Foster said that Liberty has filed “a demand for arbitration against the City of White Hall seeking a substantial increase in water and sewer rates. The City of White Hall contends that Liberty Utilities has not fulfilled its obligation of prudent and reasonable management of the water and sewer systems.

“Liberty has consistently over expensed the city’s utilities without any regard to the cost to the citizens of White Hall who are their customers.”

Foster said that White Hall has notified Liberty through City Attorney Tom Owens about their plans to “vigorously oppose the rate increase.”

Foster said in the news release that the city has “met with Liberty Utilities on multiple occasions and cited examples of mismanagement and requested better oversight and the city’s concerns have fallen on deaf ears.

“The White Hall City Council has authorized (me) to employ outside legal counsel, which has expertise and experience in utility rate cases and arbitration to protect the citizens of White Hall against unreasonable business practices and excessive rates.

“The City of White Hall looks forward to a fair and reasonable arbitration hearing and we are confident we are acting in the best interest of the citizens of White Hall.”

Attempts to reach Liberty Utilities officials and their legal counsel were unsuccessful before press time.

In documents filed with the Public Service Commission, Liberty officials say that the rate increase is needed so that “the company may recover its reasonable and necessary operating costs and have a reasonable opportunity to earn a return on its investment.

“Due to increasing costs of operation and investments in plant to extend the life of certain assets and provide improved service to its customers, the earnings of the company have declined to a level substantially below that required to produce a fair rate of return to the company’s properties used and useful in providing service,” a document filed with the Public Service Commission says.

Liberty Utilities said in August that it would lower its monthly bill by 0.8 percent, or 33 cents, a month as the result of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed in December 2017, which reduced the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent.

Steve Miller, the City of Pine Bluff’s finance director, said that city officials have not yet discussed the proposed increase.