There will be no state-ordered moratorium on utility shut-offs this winter, the Missouri Public Service Commission decided Wednesday in a unanimous vote.
The five-member commission rejected a call from the Consumers Council of Missouri for a moratorium through March 31 and staff analysis that it had the legal authority to issue a moratorium order.
Chairman Ryan Silvey, during discussion of the request, said he struggled with the decision because many people who have never experienced economic hardship in the past have been out of work for months because of the pandemic. That means people who were already in difficulty have also been hit by loss of income, he said.
“I don’t think the commission has the statutory authority to do what the Consumers Council is requesting,” Silvey said.
Silvey’s statement contradicted the statements of the PSC staff attorney, Curtis Stokes. In his response to the council's call for a moratorium, he wrote that the commission has the power under state law but would need to hold a hearing and provide a means for utilities to recover their costs for implementing it.
“Any final order would need to be supported by competent and substantial evidence adduced at the hearing, such as the testimony of an expert witness in public health establishing that the relief Movants (legal petitioners) seek will more likely than not protect the public health,” Stokes wrote.
The commission’s vote was disappointing, said Sara Owsley, policy and organizing manager for Empower Missouri, one of the groups backing the moratorium.
“I think this is really about the commissioners not having the courage to do something the utilities won’t like,” Owsley said.
Two of the utilities that would have been required to abide by a moratorium have already decided not to shut anyone off for a time. Gas provider Spire Missouri, which has about 1.2 million customers, including Joplin, told the commission in its response to the council’s request that it was not shutting anyone off until at least Jan. 1.
Because it is already difficult to reach customers with past-due accounts, Matthew J. Aplington wrote, “Spire does not intend to widely publicize this action in order to encourage customers to continue to reach out and engage with the company.”
Evergy, formerly Kansas City Power and Light, has put a moratorium on disconnections in place through March 1, attorney Roger W. Steiner wrote for the utility.
The Consumers Council of Missouri filed the request for a moratorium on Dec. 8 and asked the commission to give it expedited consideration. The council argued that utility shut-offs would force people out of their homes to shelters or to live with friends and relatives, increasing contacts that could spread COVID-19.
The request drew opposition from most of the major utilities regulated by the commission, which has power over investor-owned water, electric and natural gas providers. A moratorium would not have applied to publicly owned utilities such as municipal power companies or to electric cooperatives.
Most utility companies discontinued shut-offs early in the pandemic, and for some, the period in which customers would not be disconnected continued into the summer.
Now, many of the regulated utilities have obtained or are seeking commission orders determining how the extra costs of the pandemic will be incorporated into future rates.
In Spire’s response, Aplington argued that the utility has set up programs to assist customers who are behind in their payments and that a moratorium on cutoffs would make it more difficult to deal with customers on payment plans.
The Spire response was similar to the responses from other utilities. Most pointed to the financial support they have given customers, that they have encouraged customers behind on payments to seek public utility assistance and that the PSC’s Cold Weather Rule means there are only limited disconnections during winter months.
St. Joseph and Jefferson City sent a response asking that any moratorium exclude shut-off requests from municipal sewer companies to discontinue service. The most effective means of shutting off sewer service is to shut off the water.
“A more limited moratorium will leave the municipal government with the responsibility of assessing and addressing local conditions at any point in time,” attorney William D. Steinmeier wrote for the cities.
The final filing in the case was the council’s response to the utility company comments.
“None of the utility responses dispute the fact that the current COVID-19 pandemic qualifies as an ‘emergency’ in Missouri,” attorney John Coffman wrote for the Consumers Council. “It also remains undisputed that the pandemic is growing exponentially worse as winter approaches.”
The financial impact would be small, Coffman wrote, because of the operation of the Cold Weather Rule and because the utilities would be entitled to payment at some point from customers.
During the discussion Wednesday, commissioner Bill Kenney said he’s not happy with the outcome but didn’t agree that the commission had the authority to grant the moratorium.
“It is kind of a disappointing decision, but I think it is the only proper decision we can make as this goes forward,” he said.
The only recourse, Owsley said, would be to petition Gov. Mike Parson and ask him to use emergency powers to declare both a utility disconnection and rental eviction moratorium.
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