Tensions were high Thursday night as a group of more than 45 Columbia residents gathered at a Public Service Commission public hearing to learn more about the proposed 78 percent increase in the nongas portion of their AmerenUE bills.
The utility’s request would eventually cost an average residential user an extra $16 a month for nongas charges, which make up one-third of a customer’s bill. The nongas rate covers expenses such as billing, maintenance, infrastructure and meter-reading — essentially everything other than the gas itself.
Those in the back of the packed room at the Boone County Government Center waved colorful hand-drawn signs in protest of the proposed rate increase. One read, “How do you scare a scarecrow? Show him your AUE bill.” Others held a 4-foot banner that read “Fair Treatment for All Families.”
The proposed increase, subject to approval by the commission, is one of the highest in recent years.
Last year the customer charge increased from $8 to $9 and the total nongas charges increased by about 3 percent, said Tom Imhoff, a commission staff member who handles rates and tariffs.
“The prior rate case was a settled case,” Imhoff said. “All parties came to an agreement — the staff, the PSC and the company (AmerenUE). The rates went into effect a little earlier.”
There will be two evidentiary hearings in January about the proposed rate hike. The commission must decide whether to accept Ameren’s rate increase before May 2004.
Edward Blakely was one of 13 Columbia residents who gave testimony at the hearing. Like many of the attendees, he is disabled.
“It’s hard to believe that Ameren is in bad financial shape,” he said. “Are there other options? Could AmerenUE find ways to be more efficient?”
Although Blakely has been able to install new energy efficient appliances in his home, most of the people who spoke at the hearing said they are having trouble paying their existing utility bills.
“Having my utilities turned off is grounds for eviction,” said Deborah Calvin, who said she lives in public housing and is a Medicaid recipient.
The testimony brought somber nods and sympathetic looks from the presiding judge, Ron Pridgin, and the two commissioners in attendance. Several times they thanked the speakers for having the courage to attend the hearing and share their stories.
Grass Roots Organizing spokeswoman Mary Hussmann was acknowledged for encouraging concerned citizens to attend. Grass Roots is a nonprofit that mobilizes low-income people to participate in public affairs.