CANTON, Mo. -- In Lewis County alone, North East Community Action Corp.'s local service center has seen hundreds of requests for utility assistance since November. A driving factor behind that is Liberty Utilities' decision to raise natural gas rates Dec. 1.
"This is very scary, especially for senior citizens and those living off of minimum wage," said Judy Eaton, NECAC's Lewis County service coordinator. The rate increase "is the difference between paying for heat and buying food, gas or medications."
Liberty Utilities filed a natural gas rate case Sept. 29 with the Missouri Public Service Commission to increase annual natural gas revenues by about $7.5 million, a release by the commission said.
The company told the commission the increase reflects estimated changes in the wholesale cost of natural gas as well as the company's actual cost adjustment factor, which is a mechanism that tracks any overcollection or undercollection of natural gas costs during a 12-month period. The commission announced the rate change approval Nov. 21, and rates for ratepayers living in Clark, Lewis, Knox, Marion, Pike, Ralls and Scotland counties rose Dec. 1.
In Liberty Utilities' northeast district, residential customers who paid 43 cents per 100 cubic feet of natural gas now pay 52 cents per 100 cubic feet. Customers were notified about the rate change by letter.
"The letter stated that rates would be raised by 21 percent across the board, and the example provided was if you typically pay $100 for your bill, you'd then pay $121," Eaton explained. "For people here, that means paying between $40 and $80 extra for heat."
Eaton already knows several elderly people who wear coats, hats and gloves indoors because they are trying to lower heating bills.
"I am most frightened for the elderly regarding this rate change. Unlike others, they can't supplement their income to help pay their bills," she said.
For anyone needing utility assistance, NECAC has two programs that can help.
One is the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which is a one-time payment to a utility company on behalf of the participant to help offset the cost of a heating bill. People age 60 and older and those with disabilities became eligible for assistance beginning in November, and everyone else became eligible Dec. 1.
The second emergency assistance program is the Energy Crisis Intervention Program, which helps with utility shutoff notices.
"We've received hundreds of applications for utility assistance since November," Eaton said. "Unfortunately, our heat assistance programs can only help with a month or two. Hopefully that is enough to help out."