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Community advocates urge emergency proposal to Cold Weather Rule

October 31, 2001
By: Amanda Joyce
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The state's utility regulatory agency heard testimony Wednesday that the situation of Missourians without heat service is of "life and health threatening" proportions.

The Public Service Commission heard testimony from staff members, community agencies and utility companies about a proposed emergency amendment to the Cold Weather Rule.

The rule is currently designed to help low-income households pay their heating bills. It was last updated in 1993, and many of the advocates who spoke at the hearing said it was outdated and needed to be reformed.

Ivan Eames, who administers the Energy Crisis Intervention Program in Columbia, spoke before the commissioners, urging them to adopt the emergency amendment proposed by the PSC staff.

"Other states have a permanent moratorium on shut-offs during the winter months," Eames said. "If we were to save one life it would be worth it."

The current rule has a moratorium on shutting off service when the temperature is predicted to drop below 30 degrees.

The PSC staff's proposal would make the rule apply to more families by changing the requirements needed to apply for help.

John Coughlin spoke on behalf of the Public Council before the PSC. He said that both natural gas and electric utilities should be included in the emergency amendment.

Coughlin said that the Public Council had two parts to their proposal for the emergency amendment. The first was that reconnection of services would occur if the customer paid one-forth of his debts, or $250 at most, as a down payment.

The second part of their proposal was that the utility would not be able to disconnect if the customer was eligible for financial help and willing to make a good faith payment of $40.

Martha Hogerty, spokesman for the Office of Public Council said that currently the rule does not do enough and that an emergency addition is needed.

"For one thing, there's a lot of conditions required for the rule to apply, and it only kicks in when the temperature is below 30 degrees," Hogerty said.

In order for the rule to help, the customer must already have heat service. For the Missourians who have already been disconnected because of an inability to pay, the rule does not apply.

"Obviously, we want an equitable agreement," Hogerty said. "We can't have people freezing to death."

The PSC estimates that 29,000 households could go without heat this winter and another 50,000 are facing disconnection.

While the temperature plunged and gas prices soared last winter, thousands of Missourians were disconnected from heat service when they failed to pay their bills.

These Missourians have yet to pay off their debts or have their heat service reconnected.

Janet Hoerschgen is the Utility Regulatory Officer for the PSC. She notes that compared to last year, the amount of disconnects has increased 37 percent and the amount of debt owed increased 117 percent.

Hoerschgen said the increases are mainly due to last winter's record high gas prices.

Ameren UE, LaCleede, Kansas City Power and Light, and Missouri Gas Energy all had representatives at the hearing to present the utilities' point of view.

Every utility said they agreed that something had to be done to prevent their customers from freezing over the winter months.

They also stressed that they only wanted the emergency amendment to apply to natural gas providers and not electric service.

Kevin Kelly, the PSC's spokesman, said that since being passed in 1977, the rule has helped nearly two million Missourians maintain their heat services during the winter months.