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Some complain water bill hike hearings aren't near

Some complain water bill hike hearings aren't near

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St. Louis County customers of Missouri American Water will have a chance to weigh in next week on a proposed rate increase that could boost residential water bills by about 8 percent.

But some say the two St. Louis County public meetings — one scheduled in Ferguson and the other planned on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus — won’t allow many people to have a say.

“These locations and the timing of the hearings totally discount attendance or participation of citizens in central, south, and west (St. Louis County),” Missouri Rep. Sue Allen, R-Town and Country, said in a letter provided to the Post-Dispatch.

Missouri American Water, which serves nearly all of St. Louis County’s 1 million residents and about 30,000 people in St. Charles County, filed for a $51 million rate increase in July. It’s expected to boost quarterly bills in St. Louis County by less than $10, according to the Missouri Public Service Commission, which regulates the investor-owned water utility.

The average household uses about 19,200 gallons of water per quarter, which costs $101.84, or about $34 per month. If approved in full, the rate increase would raise residential water bills to an average of $110.32 per quarter, or $37 per month.

The water utility is collecting as much as it can from a special infrastructure charge on St. Louis County customers. As part of the rate increase, the infrastructure surcharge they pay will be reset to zero and rolled into base water rates.

That will allow the utility to again raise the infrastructure surcharge. It can be raised by a few cents at a time without going through the full ratemaking process in front of the PSC. The average St. Louis County household pays about $15 per quarter for the separate infrastructure charge.

The PSC has been holding public hearings on the rate case since last week outside of the metro area, where Missouri American also has water customers.

The PSC’s two St. Louis County meetings begin at 5:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday — a start time that Doug Hartman of Chesterfield says will keep many people who work from attending.

Without any hearings in central or west St. Louis County, the Missouri American customer also suspects many of those people won’t drive that far out of the way for the hearing.

“They put them in ridiculous places at ridiculous times to stifle public participation,” Hartman said.

The Office of Public Counsel, which advocates for ratepayers in front of the PSC, did suggest a meeting at St. Louis County Library’s Thornhill Branch in West County. It also suggested the UMSL location.

But the commission instead opted to host the second meeting at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley in Ferguson.

Allen, the state representative, said in her letter the PSC told her there wasn’t enough time to find alternate locations. She is looking “into legal means” to require PSC public hearings on rate cases to be held in all Missouri House districts.

A Missouri American Water spokeswoman said the meeting dates are set by the PSC. A PSC spokesman said in a statement that the Thornhill Branch Library wasn't available on the dates it tried to reserve meeting space. Trying to schedule a hearing this late in the process "could be logistically impossible"  and might "cause significant additional expense" for Missouri American Water customers.

Utilities are sometimes allowed to recoup a portion of rate case expenses through customer charges. 

The PSC said it was "open to discussing our process with anyone in order to be sure concerns can be addressed in future cases."

There is a third meeting in Arnold on Tuesday afternoon, but that will mainly discuss Missouri American Water’s sewer services there.

Average residential sewer rates in Arnold would increase about $6 per month to $30.50. The company bought Arnold’s publicly owned sewer system last year.

Those who are unable to attend the meetings can send comments on the rate case by calling the commission at 1-800-392-4211 or emailing pscinfo@psc.mo.gov.

The PSC is expected to rule on the rate increase this spring.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a response from the PSC about its public hearing scheduling process. 

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