JEFFERSON CITY High natural gas prices prompted the Public Service Commission to consider new ways to help people pay utility bills.
"Cold weather is now upon us, that coupled with the already high...purchase gas adjustment clauses that all the utilities have presented are going to result in bills beginning later this month and on into January and February that customers have not ever seen before," said Russell Trippensee, witness and chief utility accountant for the Office of Public Counsel.
The Office of Public Council, which represents utility customers in Missouri, said residential bills could increase 50 percent compared to the same time last year.
On Tuesday, the OPC asked the commission to help customers who have never had payment problems from getting disconnected this winter. The emergency clause would be added to the Cold Weather Rule, which the state adopted in 1997 to protect residents from losing heat. The state enacted a similar emergency clause in 2001.
OPC also wants gas companies to offer budget billing to all residential customers even if part of the account is unpaid. Any unpaid bills could also be included in the budget billing program. Utility companies would charge other customers to recover the costs.
Commissioner Connie Murray said she thinks passing the emergency provision would create more problems for people.
"We extend their hardship by making it so they become more heavily indebted and we don't know, we can't predict the future we don't know what next winter will be. I think we can probably pretty accurately predict that we're not going to have very low natural gas prices in the future."
Some Missouri gas utility companies said the emergency clause was unnecessary. The companies would recommend an alternative proposal should the commission decide to go forward with the clause.