By Tim Poor
For Elisabeth Boone, rising utility rates are literally hitting home.
“I live in an old house that is not exactly tight,” said Boone, 68, from Brentwood. “I watch the rates go steadily up and up. I’ve watched my own utility bills go up.”
That’s one reason Boone was among 70 volunteers who recently agreed to be watchdogs for a new AARP Missouri program that aims to get citizens involved in the public utilities’ rate process.
“We do need watchdogs to safeguard our interests as consumers,” said Boone, a writer for an insurance magazine. “You can’t go someplace else for electricity.”
Norma Collins, AARP Missouri advocacy director, said the group got the ball rolling in March, when it sent a legislative alert to members about excess earnings by utilities.
The alert said that Ameren Missouri’s earnings were costing state ratepayers millions of dollars each year. The alert continued: “It’s time to apply pressure and keep the discussion going. You can help by joining the AARP Missouri Utility Watchdog team.”
Seventy people replied.
Collins was somewhat surprised by the large response but said it shows how important the topic is to the public.
“I think a lot of consumers are very concerned about utility issues and want to become engaged,” she said. “This is one way they can do that.”
After an orientation, Collins said, the volunteers will attend hearings of the Public Service Commission (PSC) on rate increase requests by utilities in which AARP has decided to intervene. They’ll ask questions and tell their own stories, “letting the commissioners know how this is going to impact their lives as ratepayers,” she said.
The volunteers may also be asked to make calls or email legislators.
“They’ll just be kind of keeping an eye on things and letting legislators know there are savvy consumers out here,” Collins said. “I think volunteers and consumers know this is going to tap right into their pocketbooks. We have been successful at keeping our members informed.”
‘Army of useful citizens’
Craig Eichelman, AARP Missouri state director, said the organization’s founder, Ethel Percy Andrus, called volunteers “an army of useful citizens.”
“I think these Utility Watchdog volunteers illustrate her point perfectly,” he said.
Last year, AARP Missouri helped utility customers save millions of dollars by defeating three proposals that would have made it easier for utilities to raise their rates by reducing the requirements for surcharges for plant improvements.
Next year, AARP Missouri hopes to see passage of a bill that would make public utilities’ quarterly earnings reports open to the public.
Boone is especially interested in that issue.
“The big thing for me is, the utilities are allowed to keep their earnings … a secret,” she said. “I don’t know how you can comment intelligently on a rate increase if you don’t have that information. Profits are fine, but I don’t think they should be able to conceal them and then ask for a rate increase.”
Boone hopes to put her writing skills to use in the new effort.
“I write a good letter,” she said. “I’m not afraid to stand up and state my opinions. I want to ask the kind of questions that may make people go ‘Ouch’ but that we need to have answered.”
Boone may soon get her chance. On July 3, Ameren Missouri requested a nearly 10 percent rate hike for its 1.2 million electric customers in central and eastern Missouri. Ameren said the hike was needed to replace aging infrastructure and meet stricter regulations on coal-fired plants.
The PSC is expected to rule on the request by next May.
Members interested in volunteering for the AARP Utility Watchdog program should go to aarp.org/mo or call 866-389-5627 toll-free.
Tim Poor is a writer living in Clayton, Mo.