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story.lead_photo.caption Utility workers install a new electric pole Friday, May 24, 2019, following a tornado that caused damage along Capitol Avenue and other parts of central Jefferson City. Photo by Sally Ince / News Tribune.

The Missouri Public Service Commission has opened a working case to consider best practices for recovery of past-due customer payments after the COVID-19 pandemic emergency.

"As part of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic emergency and attendant economic disruptions, most Missouri utilities have taken steps to suspend customer disconnection efforts for non-payment of utility bills," PSC members stated in a news release. "As a result of those economic disruptions and continued provision of utility service to customers who are unable to pay for those services, the utilities will likely experience a sharp rise in the level of past-due customer-payment accounts receivable."

Once the emergency has passed, commissioners said, utility companies will be faced with the question of how to collect past-due accounts receivable without "unduly burdening their vulnerable customers."

The PSC has directed its staff to investigate the question and other relevant concerns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and file a report by Aug. 3.

Missouri American Water, the major drinking water supplier for Jefferson City, began to stop shutting off water service for customers who haven't paid their bill in March. The company has more than 11,000 customers in Jefferson City.

Spokesman Brian Russell said Missouri American Water has not changed its policy.

"We did this because the No. 1 recommendation from health officials is to wash your hands — so we need to have our customers be able to have the ability to do that," Russell said.

Russell said the company has been looking at a timeline to resume shutoffs, but "we're a long way from that happening."

"I'm sure at corporate they've run numbers on what this costs the company, but we didn't concern ourselves with that at this time," Russell said. "Water providers across the country are all doing similar measures to put health and safety before everything else."

At Cole County Public Water Supply District No. 1, District Manager Ruth Winters said the district board decided not to do turnoffs in April and May for its 6,600 customers. She said they will reevaluate in June whether to return to normal procedures. While they still have customers who have paid late during the pandemic, those numbers were not out of the ordinary, she added.

Other Cole County public water supply districts — No. 2 with 5,100 customers and No. 3 with 755 customers — also postponed shutting off service to customers who haven't paid.

Officials at Cole County Public Water Supply District No. 4 said they made no formal changes to shutoff procedures but if any of their 1,300 customers have issues, they can work to make payment arrangements.

As for electric service, Ameren Missouri officials said nothing has changed in regards to the utility's suspension of disconnections or late payment fees announced in March. They encourage customers having difficulty paying their bill to contact the customer care team or visit AmerenMissouri.com for payment options.

Three Rivers Electric Cooperative officials said they have not done shutoffs at this point, nor collected late fees, but that may change in the future.

CoMo Electric Cooperative spokesman Patrick Wood said they returned to the normal billing process, which included disconnects for delinquent accounts, after April 30, but the company is doing what it can to "help alleviate stress on our members in relation to their bills."

Wood said CoMo Electric recently received more than $2.27 million in funding through the federal CARES Act, which will be distributed during June to current members who had electric service with CoMo from January to March.

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