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Hartmann: Utility Shutoff Protection Must Last as Long as Pandemic

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There’s one essential difference between Missouri public utilities and their customers during the tragic COVID-19 pandemic: No matter what happens, the utilities will come out fine in the end.

For that reason alone, the utility companies ought to keep doing the one thing Missouri’s worthless state government never will: give frightened and struggling customers the assurance that under no circumstances will they lose their service through the first quarter of 2021. That would include for non-payment of utility bills.

A moratorium on shutoffs for non-payment has been self-imposed by each of the three public utilities in St. Louis — to their credit — for most of 2020. But each expires in the next two weeks, leaving customers vulnerable to losing essential service if they’re unable to make payments. This is an ongoing emergency. COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are setting daily records all over the nation. This is not the time to drop protections for the afflicted.

Not one thing is changing except for the calendar on January 1. In St. Louis and across the country, record numbers of people continue to suffer from having lost their incomes — personal and business — with tens of thousands in the St. Louis region facing food insecurity and the threat of homelessness. Many St. Louisans are struggling to survive, and the first quarter of 2021 looks no different for them than the nightmare of 2020.

As tempting as it might be to pick on government-protected monopolies, Ameren, Spire and Missouri American Water are not the bad guys in this story. Each of them offers fine programs to assist customers who are struggling in the pandemic. Each has exhibited compassion during the crisis. Each has done the right thing to this point.

In stark contrast, Governor Mike Parson and his administration have pretty much done the opposite of the “right thing.” From the beginning of the pandemic, Parson has prioritized right-wing politics over public health, leaving not only utilities but governments, school districts, businesses and citizens to fend for themselves in facing bad choices and crises far worse than if they resided in a state that had evolved.

The national list is now down to twelve states without mask mandates — including Missouri, of course — and all of them have COVID-19 infection rates higher than the national average of 4,730 per 100,000 people, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. At a rate of 5,463 infections per 100,000, Missouri is 13 percent above that average.

Similarly, Missouri is one of just fifteen states that has never had a utility shutdown moratorium mandated by either its governor or state utility regulators. At least it’s consistent.

Last week, the state Public Service Commission unanimously rejected a request by the Consumers Council of Missouri to impose a moratorium on utility shutoffs in early 2021. The council was acting on behalf of a coalition of organizations pleading with the state to start acting responsibly. (Note: I formerly served on the council’s board of directors.) The Missouri Hospital Association, among others, wrote a letter supporting the brief, but to no avail.

“The commission has carefully reviewed Consumer Council’s motion and shares its concern for the well-being of utility customers and all Missouri citizens during the pandemic,” the commission said. “However, the commission can only take the actions it is [sic] has been authorized by the state legislature to take."

One wonders what the PSC might have done if it didn’t share the council’s concern about the well-being of customers. I’m no lawyer, but state law already includes cold-weather rules under which these same utilities are prohibited from turning off service when temperatures dip below freezing. That’s under the PSC’s authority.

Plus, the PSC must approve every utility rate increase and is heavily involved in determining the companies’ bottom lines. If shutoff moratoria adversely impacted those numbers, the PSC would legally be required to help utilities offset them.

The PSC also concluded that the council didn't prove that the moratorium was necessary "to protect the public from an immediate danger.” If it’s not an “immediate danger” that an exploding pandemic is dangerously stressing hospitals and emergency facilities across the state, what would a real danger look like? Plus, if the PSC lacks legislative authority to enact shutoff moratoria, why even raise this point? Perhaps the council should have hauled in caskets.

Its request did point out that as recently as November 29 the White House Coronavirus Task Force reported Missouri had the nation’s fifth-highest positive test rate. Council attorney John Coffman provided a Duke University study from earlier this year that found that utility moratoria were responsible for 5 percent fewer deaths thanks to reducing evictions and, in turn, hospitalizations. Who knew?

But with the PSC checking out, it would be up to Governor Dang Mask to act by executive order to impose a shutoff moratorium, as dozens of governors have done at least once during the pandemic. Good luck with that.

That leaves it up to investor-owned utilities such as Ameren, Spire and Missouri American to step up again for their customers. They need to extend the cold-weather protection people have on freezing days and apply it throughout the treacherous first quarter of 2021. Understand that the utilities have a safety net. Like it or not (I don’t), Missouri is one of many states that has in place a system in which utilities are state-regulated monopolies guaranteed a robust rate of return — something on the order of 9 to 10 percent today — that most other companies would die for. As noted earlier, the PSC would be obligated to protect utilities’ bottom lines if shutoff moratoria hurt them.

Public utilities of course need to get paid by customers and they have legitimate concerns that customers won’t avail themselves of payment-assistance programs — many funded by federal and other sources — if there’s no urgency to paying their bills. But that’s a matter of educating people as to the plans out there to help them. It’s also important that customers understand a moratorium on shutoffs doesn’t make one’s bill go away: It just ends up being higher when the moratorium ends. Coffman argues that the large majority of people pay their arrearages when they come due in this sort of situation. He also notes that bad debts get factored into utilities’ rate bases by the PSC.

Worst case, if helping the needy in a pandemic hurts their revenues, those of us fortunate enough to have been able to keep our utility bills current might suffer a rate increase down the road because others couldn’t.

Is that fair? Who cares? This is a pandemic, not a political science class. Just hope the warm-and-fuzzy monopolies don’t leave anyone out in the cold.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at rhartmann1952@gmail.com or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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