Statement Gentry W. Trotter
Laclede Gas' Catch-Up/Keep-Up Program
Missouri Public Service Commission Formal Hearing
November 18, 2002
Room 116, Wainwright State Office Building
111 North Seventh Street
Laclede Gas' Catch-Up/Keep-Up Program Robs Peter to Pay Paul and Hurts the Needy
Thank you, Reverend Earl E. Nance, Jr., vice chairman of the board of directors for Heat-up St. Louis. Inc. It certainly is a privilege to be back before the Missouri Public Service Commission. However, it is a gloomy and sad day for gas ratepayers in the Eastern part of Missouri. Everyone in this room clearly understands that there is a large class of people who just can't afford high natural gas, as a home heating source. But each winter the numbers mount, and Heat-Up St. Louis like so many other energy assistance groups are concerned that some of our neighbors will be without a healthy, safer and warmer winter. The Laclede Gas Program's proposed, "Catch-Up/Keep" is a great approach to utility profitability. However, it is a cold, harsh and unequal reality to families in need and to those who are holding on by their finger nails, needing the 30% pipeline discount savings just to make ends meet. This equates to about $10.00 a year more, for helping the needy, when Laclede Gas is already asking ratepayers to volunteer by giving donations to its Dollar-Help program. They underwrite administrative costs for that program, why can't they for this one. The "Catch-Up/Keep-Up" program in essence mandates charitable giving and this wrong.
Add the $10.00 annual increase to an already typically high gas bill, and throw in this winter's anticipated increase of natural gas costs of about 17-20%, and gas utility becomes unaffordable to many needy families in Eastern Missouri.
The alternative is for Laclede Gas to put monies in this program, by zeroing the balance of the arrearages. Then the Commission should invoke a strong Emergency Amendment to the Cold Weather Rule, which gives needy households the opportunity to keep-up each winter with an 18- month or more payout schedule, without penalties or interests.
It's sad because the Missouri Public Service Commission has been relegated to a hearing which actually gives the gross impression of promoting corporate welfare. The Laclede Gas Program "Catch-Up/Keep-Up" robs Peter to pay Paul. Peter is a set of twins two sets of gas ratepayers. The first are those who have been buffered by the see-saw economy, and have few extra dollars and can make quick adjustments to the challenge of their budgets.
The second Peter twin represents people on moderate incomes, many who are facing daily challenges with their home budgets; attempting to pile funds away for their kids' college tuitions; needy to have their partner work a second job; enjoying some pleasures like a movie, cable television, and sales at Famous-Barr and Dillard's. They moved around some cash due in part to a very hot summer, with high electric bills because the air-conditioners kept running, almost daily. They are counting on that 30% savings. Many of these individuals are gladly giving to the gas utility's charity program, Dollar-Help on a volunteer basis, as I am too. Many of these households can handle the anticipated 17% or more raise in natural gas costs this winter. The estimated 30% saving from the pipeline costs, etc., was sort of a budget safety net. Once Laclede Gas removes it with its "Catch-Up/Keep-Up" program, their budgets may crash into a very unhealthy, unsafe and cold environment this winter. The 30% savings makes a difference for this group of people. A real significant difference.
And once Laclede has robbed the Peter twins with the support of the Missouri Public Service Commission, the monies go directly to Paul. Paul represents low-income customers faces that we have seen in the City of St. Louis, the St. Louis County, St. Charles County and other rural areas throughout Eastern Missouri. Faces of gloom and doom. Faces which are proud, but yet disappointed that they are in these financial straits.
These are the same faces, many who call each day our Heat-Up St. Louis Resource Hotline looking for energy assistance, dealing with real life-threatening stories of despair. An elderly lady, on a fixed-income, who needs additional medication, and whose grocery bills are going up. Her gas bill is $1,500. A single mother barely making ends meet with three small children. The children's attention spans and education have been placed on hold because they are moving around to aunts and uncles homes trying to stay warm each winter. She doesn't have any gas heat yet her bill $2,500. She's looking for that solution, for that relief. But due to her living expense variances, she will become a back-slider of the proposed "Catch-Up/Keep Up" program and there is no promise in place to ensure that her debt is wiped out. The alternatives would be a special discount income rate, or Laclede Gas' commitment to wipe out the entire past due bills, bringing a zero balance. These are certainly two workable beginnings, etc.
It is very charitable of Laclede Gas Company to desire to reduce the level of uncollectibles. It is very charitable of them to reach out and help many of their needy ratepayers with our money. And what happens when the 30% is pulled out of the equation? Who is going to give many of us the difference in that 30% savings we lost?
How many families barely making it will be forced into a similar situation with arrearages because their gas bills have been unfairly jacked-up? The cannot qualify for energy assistance, and the Missouri Public Service Commission has not yet, invoked the Emergency Amendment to the Cold Weather Rule, which could in fact give these working families an opportunity to pay their utility obligations over a long period of time. A relief in the budget for the non-Paul types is too needed.
The Laclede Gas, "Catch-Up/Keep Up" program long term could in fact put more ineligible, low-income customers on this program. The program readily aids the gas utility in catching-up with its profits. By noting putting any major funds into the till, like it does for its Dollar-Help program, the gas company is using the Missouri Public Service Commission to mandate our support for needy families, who have no iron-clad promises that eventually they will have zero balances when they continue on the program. This is unfair to hard-working Missourians, as well as to those needy families who many are not responsible for having fallen on hard luck.
Our pipeline discounts should remain in tact, and continue to give many of those two-Peter twin types the opportunity to also pull ahead of not only old man winter, but stay ahead of a perception of corporate greed.
In America, we are asked to volunteer to help so many of our needy neighbors, and through good programs like Dollar-Help, Dollar-More and Heat-Up St. Louis we are making a difference, but these funds are not enough. It is an outrage for a utility monology to assume that we are that dumb that we can't count. 30% taken away leaves a 30% hole in our pipeline discount savings. Someone is going to have to pay for that 30% difference. I can only imagine that it will come through some sort of mandated rate hike. If the remaining ratepayers have to put money in the till, Laclede Gas Company needs to be the first. After all it is their profits. Relief shouldn't spell profits. It should spell compassionate alternatives, not by thoughts, but by deeds.
Thank you for the opportunity for us to come before you. And at this time, will entertain any questions that you had for me or Reverend Nance.