Local residents on Thursday told state regulators repeatedly and emphatically that they do not favor a rate increase for natural gas service. Any rate increase would probably come early in 2018.
“I work six days a week, and let me tell you what – it’s everything I can do to pay my bills,” Heather Maxon told the Missouri Public Service Commission at one of several hearings being held around the state on the proposed increase.
Spire – the company formerly known as Laclede Energy and MGE before that – is asking for an overall rate increase of $34 million, which the company says works out to $5.09 a month for an average customer using 6,400 cubic feet of gas a month. (Laclede, doing business in western Missouri as MGE, in July notified the PSC of its intent to change to the name Spire. That became effective Aug. 30.)
Spire says the rate increase is to recover its investments in technology and upgraded pipelines. It’s says the increase works out to about 7 percent and is the first it’s asked for in about four years.
Laclede filed its request in April. The PSC says it usually takes about 11 months for such a request to be decided and that the companies seldom get as much as they ask for. One PSC commissioner – Bill Kenney of Lee’s Summit, a former state senator – was present Thursday, along with a regulatory law judge to run the hearing.
State Rep. Bill Kidd said he looked up company regulatory filings and quickly calculated its profit margin at about 12 percent, a figure many residents then cited for the rest of the afternoon and a figure uncontested by the company.
“I don’t know about you, but I’d like to have 12 percent on my money,” Kidd said.
Put another way, he said, the company could cover the $34 million it’s looking for with about three months of current profits.
“Gentlemen, they can find that money somewhere else, I guarantee you,” Kidd said.
Kidd said his district – Sugar Creek and north Independence, then east to Buckner – has a lot of working middle-class residents and retirees on fixed incomes.
“This district that I represent is poor. … Five dollars a month might not be much to you, but it is to these people,” he said, drawing applause from the packed meeting room at the North Independence branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library.
One of those residents is Nomi Henry.
“I have Social Security, and that’s it,” she said, adding that every company has to make money but that she opposes this increase.
Another is Bob Inman, who’s retired and said all but $2 a month of this year’s Social Security increase went for higher Medicare costs.
“We are hurting,” he said. “Retirees on fixed incomes are hurting.”
He added that he once ran a business and that it angers him to see Spire ask for more to cover its costs of doing business.
A question-and-answer period preceded the formal hearing, and residents brought a range of beefs: The company is highly profitable and can easily afford the system upgrades. The CEO is paid too much. The company is a monopoly and shouldn’t pass on to ratepayers the costs of its image advertising or its name change. All utilities bills seem to be going up. The efficiencies of scale and automation should send rates down instead of up. The company doesn’t do a good job when renters move out and the account is supposed to revert to the landlord without hassle or paperwork.
One woman put it this way: “I don’t think it’s fair for us to fund your name change. You do not need to advertise on TV that you’re a good company because you’re” – now several others joined in with her – “the only company.”
Colleen Lamoreaux said she’s on a fixed income and has to skip her medicine every other month to get by. If the rate goes through, she said, she’ll just turn off her utilities.
“I am asking you guys, I am begging you guys not to let this go through,” she said.
A landlord, Stephen Summers, added many people in the area simply don’t have gas service turned on and said a rate increase will make that worse.
“The people have to move,” he said. “Where are they going to go?”
All but one of the 15 people who registered comments at the hearing opposed the rate increase.
Garland Land – a member of the Independence Public Utilities Advisory Board and a board member for the Community Services League – didn’t directly state support or opposition but said in his role with the CSL he constantly sees poor people struggling with utility bills. He said Spire’s proposal to drop its monthly service charge from $25.50 to $20 is a good step and will help those with low incomes the most. He suggested dropping it to $15 or even $10.
“ … I think the service charge is what we ought to be looking at,” Land said.
Several residents said more needs to be done to help those with low incomes cope with their gas bills.
“I’m sure that will be part of our discussion during this rate case,” Kenney said.
Residents also took exception to a figure – stated in response to a question early in the afternoon – that MGE only kicks in about $40,000 a year to the dollar check-off that ratepayers can add to for a fund to aid those needing help with their gas bills.
“That is drastically small,” Land said. At the end of the hearing, the company said the figure is approximately $100,000. Some in the room said that’s too little as well.
Comments about the company’s profits and salaries resonated throughout the room, as did comments about how hard it is to get by these days. Mabel Shapiro said she’s retired and on a fixed income, and she asked the PSC not to approve the increase.
“But then again,” she said, “we have no control over this. It happens.”
In addition to the hearings around the state this fall, the PSC plans formal evidentiary hearings Dec. 4-8, Dec. 11-15 and Jan. 3 in Jefferson City. The case is GR-2017-0216. Spire customers can email their comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to psc.mo.gov , or send comments to Office of the Public Counsel, P.O. Box 2230, Jefferson City, Mo., 65102-0360.