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story.lead_photo.caption FILE: Curtis Wheat, left, and Brian Russell, right, give a tour on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2017, of the Missouri American Water treatment plant and the series of upgrades underway at the Jefferson City facility. Photo by Mark Wilson / Fulton Sun.

This article is free to all readers because it includes information important to public safety and health in our community.

The Missouri Public Service Commission is considering a request for a utility disconnection moratorium due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

Consumers Council of Missouri has filed a motion seeking an emergency order requesting the PSC issue a statewide moratorium on the involuntary disconnection or discontinuance of residential service by PSC-regulated electric, natural gas and water corporations through at least March 31.

The motion also requests the PSC order the waiver of any late fees and related costs.

The CCM motion states these measures are necessary to protect the health and welfare of the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The motion requests the commission take action by next Wednesday.

The motion was supported by a variety of community organizations that have been convened by Empower Missouri since late October as the Utility Disconnection Prevention Working Group.

"The COVID-19 pandemic represents a major risk to health and safety during these winter months," CCM Executive Director Jackie Hutchinson said in a news release. "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."

Hutchinson said a recent study at the Nicholas Institute at Duke University shows eviction moratoriums reduce the average growth rate of COVID-19 cases by 4.5 percent, and water and utility shutoff moratoriums reduce the average growth rate by 2.6 percent.

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"We have already seen how COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed communities with low incomes, Black Missourians, and other communities of color," Hutchinson stated. "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."

Almost half a million customers of Missouri's regulated utilities were behind on their bills in September and 185,000 were working on payment plans to catch up with past-due accounts, the Missouri Independent recently reported.

"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," Jeanette Mott Oxford, director of policy and organizing for Empower Missouri, said in the news release. "We believe that the laws of our state allow the PSC 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."

Utilities such as Missouri American Water have implemented programs during the pandemic to help customers who have fallen behind on bills like a voluntary moratorium. Missouri American Water also added $250,000 to the fund the company uses to assist customers.

PSC officials said customers should communicate with their utility companies when they are having trouble keeping up with bills to work out a payment plan or access programs for support.

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