Utility companies offer tips on how to get through dangerous weather

Wednesday, January 6, 2010 | 6:36 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA  — Customers who have not paid their bills for natural gas or electrical services can still keep their heat during this bitter cold spell.

All local utilities have adopted the Cold Weather Rule established in Missouri in 1977, which prohibits them from disconnecting service if temperatures drop below freezing or rise above 90 degrees.

In addition, the rule requires utilities to notify a customer by mail at least 10 days prior to the date of the proposed disconnection.

It also requires utilities to make further contact attempts within 96 hours prior to disconnection by either a second written notice, a door hanger or at least two telephone calls.

Utilities must inform customers about possible financial help, and they are prohibited from disconnecting registered low-income elderly or disabled customers who make a minimum payment.

"If people are not able to pay their bill, we encourage them to come in and make arrangements," said Lori Fleming, city finance. "We go through extensive efforts to work something out."

Michael Cleary, spokesman for AmerenUE, advised customers to contact the utility before payment becomes overwhelming or overdue.

Ameren customers have two payment options when weather becomes unbearably hot or cold:

• A budget program can be set up to average bills throughout the year with a consistent payment every month.

• The Dollar More program allows residents to contribute $1 or more to a fund that helps people in need. Ameren also contributes to the fund, which raises approximately $1 million a year for energy assistance.

Boone Electric Cooperative also works with residents who cannot meet bill payments by providing a list of resources that can help once the resident contacts the utility office, said communication specialist Jessica Spencer.

"A cutoff should be the last resort," Cleary said.

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