JEFFERSON CITY — Overwhelmed Missouri regulators decided Wednesday to suspend a short-lived program in which they sent postcards to utility customers so they could comment on proposed rate increases.
The cards were sent to Missouri Gas Energy's customers starting last month, and state regulators were considering how to use them for a case involving The Empire District Gas Co. However, the agency has been struggling to deal with the number of cards that were sent back and by confusion among respondents, including some who mistakenly included money to pay their utility bills.
Thousands of cards have been returned, and about two-thirds of Missouri Gas Energy customers haven't even received them yet. The commission decided Wednesday that it would send cards to the rest of that utility's customers but would not use the program for other rate cases until regulators can come up with changes to make it more manageable.
Utility customers can still comment on proposed rate increases during public hearings, on a hot line and on the commission's Web site.
Commissioner Kevin Gunn said the comment cards had sounded like a good idea but weren't working.
"I'm not really sure this is accomplishing what we want to accomplish," Gunn said.
Some consumers were apparently confused about whether the comments were going to the utility or to regulators, and several comments indicate possible problems with the wording of the cards. For example, some people apparently believed they were being asked to vote on a proposed rate increase.
In a report to the commission dated Tuesday, regulatory staff said it had received 3,199 written public comments and 496 verbal comments, about 30 times higher than normal. Staff said keeping pace with the comments likely would require overtime and additional workers.
Staff estimated that processing a card could take less than a half hour, provided the respondent wasn't confused and that the comment didn't require further action. Cards that demanded additional steps, such as writing a letter to the customer or forwarding money to a utility, can take more than six hours to handle, staff said.
The cards also raised privacy concerns. Some respondents provided telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, Social Security numbers and utility and bank account numbers — information that would be public if the comments were included in the record upon which regulators evaluate a rate increase request.
However, commissioners agreed Wednesday to limit access to comment cards to only those directly involved in a rate case.