Court blocks arbitrary PSC rule change

Saturday, December 1, 2001

Nobody is arguing that both last winter's weather and the accompanying natural-gas bills were brutal.

Cape Girardeau County was iced over and at near-record low temperatures for weeks in December. Meanwhile, low inventories of gas in a volatile market left local customers paying two and three times what they would have in a normal winter.

The combination meant disconnected gas service for many once spring arrived.

Missouri's cold-weather rule kept gas companies from cutting off service any sooner to customers who didn't pay their bills. The rule says that companies can't disconnect customers from Nov. 1 to March 31 when the temperatures are most likely to drop below freezing.

And customers who are delinquent on their bills often don't mind a spring cutoff. They won't be needing heat again for many months, so the gas bill is forgotten until the first nippy evening of autumn.

The system apparently worked before last winter's three- and four-figure bills. The Missouri Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the state, intervened in October to help those who couldn't afford to pay their bills and, in come cases, a reconnection fee before their service could be restored.

They made a rule change that allowed disconnected customers to pay 25 percent of their bills or $250, whichever was lower, to be reconnected and then enjoy service while making payments on the overdue account.

The ruling was to go into effect Nov. 18. Atmos Energy Corp., which has 110,000 customers in eastern Missouri, and Missouri Gas Energy challenged the revised rule because it does not guarantee they will be able to recoup costs from last winter.

Cole County Circuit Judge Thomas Brown sided with them in a ruling that questioned the PSC's process in making the rule change. Brown issued a temporary stay on the new rule.

Brown's ruling also sided with private industry and recognized its right to make a profit. Atmos, for example, reported net income of $56.1 million for its fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2001, up from $35.9 million the year before. Its stockholders no doubt expect similar gains in the future.

Brown was right to allow time to sort out whether the PSC even has the authority to impose such a rule change, never mind whether it should.

Meanwhile, other gas companies are to be applauded for generously allowing their financially troubled customers to keep warm. AmerenUE has 107,000 gas customers in Missouri, and 50 of them who asked to be reconnected under the rule change have been.

"We were never a part of that appeal that was filed," AmerenUE spokesman Mike Cleary said. "Our intent all along was to comply with the change. We share PSC's concern about customers having trouble getting reconnected, and it hasn't been a problem for Ameren."

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