If approved, the new rate for natural gas would go into effect Nov. 1.
Natural gas customers in Cape Girardeau would pay 42 percent more to heat their homes this winter than last year under a rate increase request filed with the state Friday by AmerenUE.
The widely expected increase comes as public assistance agencies said high utility bills are already taxing their ability to help low-income people and as the agencies have less money.
Representatives from the East Missouri Action Agency said 25 percent more people asked for winter help in the first week of this year's program compared to 2004. The agency has an initial budget of $430,000 for eight counties. The agency handed out $710,000 last year, said Keri McCrorey, community services program director.
The Missouri Public Service Commission must approve the AmerenUE rates, which reflect the higher wholesale cost of natural gas because of supply disruptions caused by hurricanes. If approved, the rates would take effect Nov. 1.
The PSC can alter the rate only if it finds AmerenUE incorrectly calculated its costs, utility analyst Warren Wood said. "There is not a profit markup on that," Wood said. "They are not a supplier of natural gas out of the ground."
AmerenUE charged 89 cents per 100 cubic feet of gas last winter. This year, if the rate increase is approved, the 20,000 gas customers in Cape Girardeau, Scott and part of Stoddard counties will pay almost $1.27 per 100 cubic feet.
For the 2,000 AmerenUE customers in Butler and Bollinger counties and the Advance area of Stoddard County, the rate hike and the amount customers pay will be considerably less than in Cape Girardeau. The rate hike compared to last year will be 38 percent. The price for those customers will be 40 cents cheaper at 87 cents per 100 cubic feet of gas.
The rate increase is less than some of the worst predictions for heating costs in the Midwest. The U.S. Department of Energy estimated last week that costs could be as much as 61 percent more than last winter. The increased rates translate to a bill 29.6 percent higher for the average residential user in Cape Girardeau and 23.7 percent higher in the lower-cost region.
"It will still be high," AmerenUE spokesman Mike Cleary said. "People need to be prepared."
In Cape Girardeau County, 291 people sought energy help in the first week of this year's winter assistance program, which began Oct. 1. Figures for last week weren't available, but the demand didn't slow, said Gretchen Weber, community service representative for the action agency.
"The bills seem to be higher than we can pay, even with the maximum we can offer," Weber said.
For a single person, the agency can help if monthly income does not exceed $997. For a family of four, the maximum income to receive assistance is $2,016.
The agency provides two types of help. Anyone meeting the income guidelines can receive a one-time check to pay their current bill, McCrorey said. Crisis cases, defined as people who have been disconnected or are facing that action, can receive up to $600 to get utilities restored, she said.
Most of the people seeking help have been to the agency before, Weber said, but an increasing number are first-time applicants. One applicant she saw Friday was a 90-year-old woman, Weber said.
"She said it was her first time coming here," Weber said. "She said, 'I don't know what I am doing or what I am asking for, I just know I cannot pay my utility bill.'"
The lower budget for this year concerns Weber. "My biggest fear is that we are going to run out of money and we are not going to be able to provide for our clientele due to the high cost of gas."
AmerenUE provides two types of help for people to control their utility costs, Cleary said. One is a new program of rebates for energy efficiency upgrades. The program pays up to $200 for installing efficient water heaters and up to $250 for installing efficient furnaces. It also pays 50 percent of the cost, up to set limits, for the cost of things like water heater blankets or pipe insulation.
The rebate program was launched Oct. 1.
The other program, which has been in place for quite a while, is budget billing. Utility costs are averaged over a 12-month period and customers pay the same amount for 11 months, then an adjusted bill at the end of the period.
"The most important thing to do is if you think you are going to have a problem, don't wait until you have an overdue bill," Cleary said. "There are sources of energy assistance. Don't wait until the last minute."
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