Columbia residents have been hearing for months that they can expect higher natural gas bills this winter. Those bills could be even higher in December if the Missouri Public Service Commission approves a proposed 78 percent increase in the non-gas portion of AmerenUE bills.
Doug Micheel of the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers on utility issues, said he has fielded several calls from residents who are worried about the proposed increase, many of them from Columbia.
“This is one of largest increases that Ameren has asked for in some time,” he said.
Micheel will be discussing the AmerenUE request at a public meeting at 6:30 tonight at Oak Towers, 700 N. Garth Ave., sponsored by Grass Roots Organizing. The Public Service Commission will hold a public hearing on the issue in Columbia on Oct. 30.
The utility’s request would eventually cost an average residential user an extra $16 a month for non-gas charges, which make up one-third of a customer’s bill. The non-gas rate covers expenses such as billing, maintenance, infrastructure and meter-reading — essentially everything other than the gas itself.
AmerenUE wants the non-gas rate increase to be phased in beginning Dec. 1, but state regulators aren’t required to make a decision until 11 months after the request is filed, which is next April. If the Public Service Commission approves AmerenUE’s request soon, residential customers could see an $8 increase on their monthly bill in December and a second $8 dollar increase in November 2004.
“For people working on minimum wage or who are disabled, they can’t keep paying higher bills,” said Mary Hussmann of GRO. “Our members have reached their limit.”
AmerenUE spokesman Mike Cleary said the utility is seeking a $26.7 million annual increase in non-gas revenues because distribution costs have gone up because of state-mandated pipe replacement and other system improvements.
“We’re allowed to earn a rate of return that is competitive in the industry,” he said. “We have a monopoly on gas, but we compete for investors. If Ameren isn’t paying a high enough rate of return, investors will take their money elsewhere.”
AmerenUE relies on non-gas charges for its profits because it sells natural gas at cost.
The price of natural gas, however, is about to go up. AmerenUE gas customers in mid-Missouri can expect the gas portion of bills to increase about 7 percent to 10 percent in the next few weeks, Cleary said, because of declines in production and increasing demand.