Because of the poor economy, it's not a good time to let Ameren Missouri raise its rates.
That was one common message sent to the Public Service Commission (PSC) at Wednesday's PSC rate case hearing in Jefferson City. About 70 people packed the hearing room, some speaking directly to Ameren Missouri's CEO, Warner Baxter.
Some speakers told Baxter they can't afford any rate increase. Sandra Callahan of Russellville said that despite not having luxuries such as a dishwasher, the bills are often increasing $3 or $4 a month.
"It may not make a difference to you people that own this big Ameren UE company, but I live on a fixed income of Social Security disability, and my check does not supply sufficient needs for your raises all the time."
Baxter said he appreciates her concern, but that an increased need for energy in the future requires the company to invest for the future.
Later, he told the audience: "We put $5 million of energy-assistance programs available to consumers who are struggling to make ends meet. None of that $5 million is part of your bill. That is all eaten by shareholders. We are absorbing that."
Clara Tremaine said she was a nurse on disability before retiring and hasn't had a cost-of-living increase for three years. She said she lowered her thermostat to 65, then down to 60 in an attempt to keep her electric bills down. She said she lowers it to 50 when she leaves the house.
"I don't know if my bones can take any lower" temperatures, she said.
Joy Sweigart echoed her statement, saying it's the wrong time for a rate hike. "You have a lot of people who are just hanging on by the threads," she said.
Daphne Koepp said she's also on a fixed income. She said she turns down the thermostat and puts three or four quilts on her bed to stay warm. "You have to understand, not everyone can pay for increases, and I'm one of them," she said.
The PSC is about halfway through an 11-month process to decide what increase, if any, Ameren can seek. It's asking for about 11 percent, or about 31 cents per day per residential customer. The PSC last approved a rate hike for Ameren in July 2010 for 10 percent.
Nine people gave testimony on the record, and others spoke during a more informal question-and-answer period near the beginning of the 2 1/2-hour hearing.
Wilma H. Partee asked the commission to deny the rate increase or at least delay it until the economy recovers.
She criticized the PSC, saying it didn't publicize the hearing well enough. She also questioned how accessible the PSC is, saying someone she knows recently had no luck trying to reach someone from the PSC by phone, and wasn't allowed to talk to someone when he drove there.
Gregg Ochoa of the PSC's staff said the public can reach a live person at the PSC by calling 800-492-4211. At Partee's request, Baxter also gave a way for people to reach him directly: email@example.com.
Some questioned why Ameren can't absorb some of its costs without passing them along to customers.
"What we do with our profits is we invest the vast majority of our profits back into our business, so we can continue to provide reliable energy ... as well as invest in our infrastructure," Baxter said, adding that some of the profits are returned to shareholders.
Not all the speakers were critical of Ameren. Jim Nichols of Jefferson City said that Ameren "moved heaven and earth" two years ago during a winter ice storm to restore power to his two transformers. Warren M. Hollrah, a former city councilman from Fulton, said Ameren is a "good neighbor of Callaway" and provides a good service.