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Consumers Council urges PSC to bar utility shut-offs this winter

The Consumers Council of Missouri (CCM) asked the Public Service Commission (PSC) to pass a moratorium on utility disconnections through the winter months this week.

“The COVID-19 pandemic represents a major risk to health and safety during these winter months,” CCM Executive Director Jackie Hutchinson said. “The added strain of utility disconnections could increase stress on our health care system, through potential increases in transmission of coronavirus among families and communities.”

The organization requested a statewide moratorium on involuntary discontinuation of utility services under the commission’s jurisdiction through March 31. The request quickly received the backing of advocacy group Empower Missouri, which filed its own motion with the PSC in support of the request. Director of Policy and Organizing Jeanette Mott Oxford said her organization’s Utility Disconnection Prevention Working Group had been meeting since October to address similar concerns.

“Our working group explored a variety of options in an attempt to secure a winter moratorium, but, with cold weather upon us, filing for the emergency order appeared to be the only path that met the urgency of the moment,” Oxford said. “We believe that the laws of our state allow the Public Service Commission to step in with this type of action when the health and safety of the public are at risk as they so clearly are in this pandemic.”

Empower referenced a study from Duke University finding moratoriums on evictions and utility disconnections reduced the spread of COVID-19. According to the study, states with housing security policies saw a lower rate of transmission of the virus over the summer, with shut-off bans reducing the risk by an average of 2.6 percent. 

Hutchinson said disconnection and eviction policies especially impacted customers with a lower income. 

“We have already seen how COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed communities with low incomes, Black Missourians, and other communities of color,” Hutchinson said. “The moratorium we are requesting could reduce the threat of increased COVID-19 cases caused when families must leave their homes and move in with others due to utility disconnections.”

The motion also requested the waiver of late fees and associated costs for past-due utility payments. 

CCM is a group dedicated to educating and supporting consumers in issues including utilities, personal finance, and health care rates.

Several utility companies, including Ameren and Spire, have been approved to waive disconnections and late payments by the commission over the past few months. The commission has also approved various programs to recoup lost revenue and requested input from utility companies on handling past-due bills last week.

The PSC does operate a “Cold Weather Rule” from Nov. 1 through March 31, under which utilities are not allowed to disconnect services on days when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. Customers eligible for the program can also receive advance notice of billing issues and enter into payment agreements to maintain their service. 

Empower said action on the request is expected by Dec. 16, the day of the commission’s next agenda meeting.