Jay Helm said he’s worried about his neighbors in Wheatland.
“I’d estimate that half of our demographic are fixed income, on social security and living check-to-check,” he said. “They can’t really even afford our utilities inside our city. An electrical rate increase would hit them hard.”
Nicole Tyler of Buffalo said she was excited to own her first home but believes she will have to move due to high utility bills, despite making numerous efficiency improvements.
“There’s no reason my electric bill should be upwards of $200 to $400 per month,” she said.
Robert Jackson of Bolivar is concerned his utility company doesn’t call him if his meter is misread.
“They don’t admit they make mistakes,” he said.
Helm, Tyler and Jackson were three of about 30 area residents who sought to make their case to the Missouri Public Service Commission against a proposed rate hike sought by the Empire District Electric Co. at a Monday, Feb. 3 public hearing.
About 10 attendees testified to their frustration at the meeting.
“I’ve got a sister in Humansville,” Fern Floyd told the commission. “Her light bill was $200. She lives in a three-room apartment. The rooms aren’t big enough to cuss a cat in and she hardly ever opens the door. This is a disgrace.”
As previously reported by the BH-FP, Empire filed an electric rate case with the commission in August, seeking to increase annual electric revenues by about $26.5 million. The filing reported an average residential customer using 1,000 kWh of electricity a month would see electric rates increase by around $7.85 a month.
A release from the company said Empire serves about 155,165 electric customers in the Missouri counties of Barry, Barton, Cedar, Christian, Dade, Dallas, Greene, Hickory, Jasper, Lawrence, McDonald, Newton, Polk, St. Clair, Stone and Taney.
According to an information sheet from the commission, Monday’s hearing gave residents a chance to express their “opinions, concerns and requests on the record.”
Testimonies and names were recorded by a court reporter and were entered into the case’s record.
The commission will review all evidence filed in the case during an April hearing in Jefferson City before rendering a decision.
While the commission hasn’t yet ruled on the proposal, according to a separate commission informational sheet, its staff, which is made up of an independent body of professional engineers, accountants, financial analysts, economists, customer experience specialists and attorneys, has actually recommended Empire decrease its revenue requirements by $22 million.
“In determining its recommendation, staff reviewed all of Empire’s filings, as well as filings made by all other parties to the case,” the sheet stated. “Staff conducted an independent review of Empire’s books and records, interviewed personnel, and sent numerous data requests to Empire seeking information and supporting documents.”
In reviewing the information, the sheet said commission staff looked for trends in Empire’s historical costs, significant increases and decreases in its test-year expenses, unusual levels of specific costs and proposed appropriate adjustments.
The commission’s finding isn’t unprecedented, according to the sheet. In August 2018, commissioners ordered Empire to adjust rates prospectively to reflect a reduction in its revenue requirement by $17,837,022.
The adjustment took effect Aug. 30, 2018, and was reflected as a bill credit on customers’ bills.
While those gathered at the meeting were ready to lobby firmly against the hike, Empire was also ready to prove its case.
It’s the first time the company has increased its base rate since 2016.
According to an informational sheet from Empire, the request is being made to account for “numerous investments made to help provide better service and reliability for Missouri electric customers.”
Meaning, Empire spokesperson Jillian Curtis said, the revenue the company is requesting has already been spent to improve service.
“Whenever we file a rate case, it’s for previous expenses,” she said. “So this is money we have already invested for our customers.”
Sheri Richard, Empire’s director of regulatory affairs, said those investments take the form of improvements totaling $338 million.
The improvements, which don’t include maintenance, Richard said, include poles, wires, substations, transformers, generating stations or other upgrades.
She added the work has made a provable difference.
“Our system average interruption duration index and system average interruption frequency index are what we use to measure outages,” she said. “They’ve actually improved from 2016 to now because of those improvements.”
Richard went on to address other complaints brought up at the hearing. While some residents expressed concerns over the company estimating billing, Richard said there’s a good reason for it.
“Occasionally, we have to estimate a bill if there's an animal in the backyard, we can’t get the gate open or there's bad weather,” she said. “As much as they don’t like it, we don’t like it either.”
And, she said any overpayment is “trued up the next time.”
“So they don’t just pay it and never get their credit back,” she said. “It automatically updates, whether or not anyone calls to question it.”
Responding to several questions about the company’s rate, Diana Carter, an attorney for Empire, told those gathered that, if they felt their bill had spiked unfairly, it’s OK to ask for a second look.
The company’s rate hasn’t increased since 2016, she reiterated.
“If you’re seeing what looks like a rate increase, then there’s an issue there and we need to know about your specific bill so we can look that up and try to fix it and see what the problem might be,” she said. “Because there’s not been a rate increase.”