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Our Opinion: PSC plans hearing on pre-hearing surcharge

Proving Peter Allen’s lyrics that “everything old is new again,” the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) is applying a 1939 authorization to proposed legislation.

The PSC has scheduled a public hearing — sanctioned by a nearly 75-year-old statute — to receive public testimony on a measure to allow specified electric utilities to fund infrastructure repairs by adding a surcharge to customers’ bills.

The proposal is among the more hotly contested concepts being discussed and debated this session, not only in the Capitol, but among organizations and associations representing ratepayers, and among customers themselves in forums including the “Your Opinion” section of this newspaper.

Under the bill, Missouri’s three investor-owned utilities — Ameren Missouri, KCP&L and Empire District — would be permitted to repair aging infrastructure with money collected from a surcharge on customers’ bills prior to PSC action on and approval of the added fee.

Supporters contend the fee — called the Infrastructure system repair surcharge, or ISRS — would be subject to an abbreviated analysis by the PSC. If approved, it would allow utilities to expedite repairs before the more lengthy, thorough review is conducted.

Opponents cite the ever-increasing costs to ratepayers and contend the surcharge is unnecessary, unfair and won’t improve service.

Throughout the debate, the role of the PSC occasionally has been mischaracterized by opponents who believe the commission exists to protect utility customers. That is only partially correct.

Its mission — according to its web site, psc.mo.gov — is “to ensure Missouri consumers have access to safe, reliable and reasonably priced utility service while allowing those utility companies under our jurisdiction an opportunity to earn a reasonable return on their investment.”

The commission’s dual mission — or balancing act, if you will — is to protect both consumers and investors. During commission hearings, the utilities testify on behalf of their investors and consumer interests are represented by the public counsel.

The PSC has scheduled its public hearing on the surcharge proposal for 9 a.m. April 8, in their hearing room in Jefferson City’s Governor Office Building. Comments also will be accepted online or by mail.

Although this may sound confusing, the PSC essentially is hosting a public hearing on whether an abbreviated process is sufficient to allow utilities to collect a surcharge until a full hearing can be held on the added cost.

And, although that may sound convoluted, it’s a good idea.

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