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Missouri Public Commission seeks to overturn order that prevents the implementation of amendment to the Cold Weather Rule

November 28, 2001
By: Steve Ahern
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - As Mid-Missourians brace themselves for the first blast of winter weather, the Missouri Public Commission is seeking accelerated review of a court order stalling efforts to require utility service for Missouri's lower income in areas of western and southern Missouri.

Two of the state's eight natural gas companies have filed suit against commission emergency amendment to the "Cold Weather Rule" that would force utilities to provide service to a greater number of non-paying customers during the winter.

The amendment, struck down by the circuit, is not scheduled for hearing before the Western District Appeals Court on December 20. But Commission Chairman Kelvin Simmons said that by that time it will be too late.

"Time is of the essence" Simmons said. "The forecast tonight and for the next couple of days calls for cold temperatures and either snow or freezing rain."

The amendment is intended for customers who have been disconnected for non-payment or who face connection. According to Simmons, a record number of Missourians have been faced with disconnection.

"29,000 have already been disconnected and an additional 50,000 face disconnection," Simmons said.

Missouri's "Cold Weather Rule" restricts utilities from disconnecting service to non-paying customers during the winter. Earlier this fall, the commission amended the rule to cover more Missourians, and require restoration of service to some customers with unpaid bills.

The change has been challenged by two natural gas companies that serve the Kansas City area and part of southwest Missouri.

The change is in effect in the rest of the state covered by the state's six other natural companies that did not challenge commission's order.

Simmons said that the court had a problem with the procedure the commission used to adopt the emergency amendment that would give customers up to 18 months to pay their past bills.

Paul Snider, spokesman for the Missouri Gas Energy Corporation, said that the 18 month repayment period is spread over too long a time.

"It's not realistic. We are favoring a 12 month repayment period instead of 18 months because in 18 months we're talking about 3 winters."

He also said that Missouri Gas was patient with their customers during a very financially pressing time for the company.

"We were extremely lenient last Winter. We have had bad experience with cost recovery. Mr. Simmons hasn't left us with any assurance we will recover all of our costs."

Mr. Hunter, Director of Corporate Communications at ATMOS noted that such a repayment time frame puts pressure on customers.

"We think this rule puts the customers in an untenable position because it greatly compound the amount they will owe, Hunter said. It makes it difficult for them to catch up."We're not opposed to the rule as long as it allows us to recover the cost incurred by the rule."

However, Simmons said that the court decision comes at a very bad time.

"The court decision today coupled with the fact that Missouri is still waiting for its full allotment fo federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding makes it very difficult not only for those customers trying to heat their homes but for the many worthwhile service agencies that are trying to get customers the dollars they need to get reconnected and receive service."