Regulators denied nearly the entirety of the rate increase sought by Liberty Utilities.

The Missouri Public Service Commission allowed an annual revenue increase of $992,400. A residential customer using a thousand kilowatt-hours a month will see an increase of 48 cents per month, or 0.37%.

The Joplin-based utility had filed a request Aug. 14, 2019, asking to increase its annual electric revenues by $26.5 million in Missouri. Liberty customers in Southwest Missouri would have seen their monthly bills rise by 5.9% if the rate request was approved in full by the PSC. A customer using a thousand kilowatt-hours of electricity per month would have seen the bill rise by $7.85.

The new rates take effect Sept. 16.

The announcement was made late Wednesday by the PSC.

Customers who spoke at a public hearing in Joplin in February also were universally opposed to an increase. 

Regulators allowed Liberty to continue various energy efficiency and low-income programs as well as the fuel adjustment charge under the rate case decision. The FAC allows the utility to adjust customer bills twice a year — June and December — to reflect increases or decreases in fuel and purchased power costs.

In its announcement Wednesday, the PSC also said it has addressed customer service issues. At local public hearings held in Bolivar and Branson, as well as Joplin, the most frequent complaint regarding Liberty's service involved the number of estimated bills and the difficulty in addressing estimated bills with the utility. “While the commission finds that Empire (Liberty) is taking steps to improve its customer service, the commission believes it is important to monitor Empire’s progress related to meter reading and billing."

Commissioners directed Liberty to initiate quarterly reports to the PSC staff and the Missouri Office of the Public Counsel, which represents ratepayers before the PSC, that will include the number of estimated meter readings and the number of estimated meter readings exceeding three consecutive estimates.

In addition, Liberty is to evaluate the authorized meter reading staffing levels and take action to maintain staffing levels in order to minimize the number of estimated customer bills. 

Liberty had said last year that its rate request follows $338 million in investment it had made since April 2016 that includes the replacement of more than 6,400 poles and the installation of more than 11,000 sectionalizing devices, which automatically isolate an outage to as few customers as possible, the company said in a statement.

The rate increase was the first one the utility had requested in four years and the first since Liberty completed its acquisition of Empire District Electric Co. in 2017.

The filing also was used to include in rate base $11 million in tax savings the utility has realized as part of President Donald Trump's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017.

Liberty officials have previously said this proposed rate increase is not tied to its wind generation plan. About 280 turbines are being built, split among two spots in Southwest Missouri and a third location in Southeast Kansas. The company has said the wind project represents an investment of more than $1 billion. That construction is underway.

Liberty serves more than 155,000 electric customers in Southwest Missouri, including Joplin.