What does the Office of Public Counsel do for Consumers?

How does OPC represent consumers when utilities seek rate increases?
A utility cannot increase its rates or alter the conditions of service until the Public Service Commission approves the change. The utility must file its application with the PSC and demonstrate that a change is just and reasonable. The OPC investigates the company's filing based on detailed information from the utility and its own research. The OPC's positions and arguments seek to protect ratepayers' interests by advocating for reasonable rates and high service quality. At trial type evidentiary hearings before the Public Service Commission (PSC), OPC's attorneys cross-examine the utility's and other adverse witnesses and offer the testimony of OPC's technical experts and other evidence to support the consumers' point of view. When necessary, the office pursues its position by appeal to the Missouri appellate courts.
Do negotiations and settlements help consumers?
Once OPC has investigated a case, developed its position and prepared for litigation, the attorneys and experts discuss the case in negotiations with the utlities and other parties to see if the issues presented by the case can be resolved without the expense, time, and uncertainty of an extended hearing. OPC analyzes settlement proposals in light of its investigation and will settle a case if the settlement is favorable or better for consumers than the likely outcome of the litigation. The PSC must approve settlements.
Does participation in a public hearing matter?
Yes! Public hearings provide a chance for you to comment on utility regulatory policies, the wisdom, need, and affordability of proposed rate changes, as well as quality of service provided by the utility. Your voice, joined with that of other citizens, makes a difference. We welcome and encourage your participation and comments.

Utility Issues

What is the Cold Weather Rule and how to obtain cold weather assistance?

The Missouri Public Service Commission's Cold Weather Rule, designed to help customers with heat-related utility bills. The Cold Weather Rule has been a part of the Commission's rules and regulations since 1977. Since its inception, the rule has helped over one million needy customers maintain heat-related service during the winter. The Cold Weather Rule relates to any residential gas or electric service that is necessary for the proper function and operation of heating equipment. Electric or gas service provided by municipalities, electric cooperatives and propane delivered by truck are not covered by this rule.

The Cold Weather Rule allows customers to maintain service under certain payment terms, restricts deposits, ensures customers are given adequate notification of a proposed discontinuance, encourages customers who can't pay their utility bills to seek financial assistance through available sources, provides special provisions for the state's elderly and disabled and prohibits the disconnection of heat-related service when temperatures are predicted to fall below 30 degrees.

The Cold Weather Rule contains provisions for those customers who can't pay their utility bill but want to maintain existing service. Under the rule that customer must:

  1. Contact the utility company and express an inability to pay the bill in full;
  2. Apply for energy assistance;
  3. Provide income information if requested;
  4. Make a minimum payment; and
  5. Enter into a payment agreement.

The Cold Weather Rule requires the utility to first offer a 12 month budget plan. If a customer states an inability to pay a budget plan amount, and that inability to pay is due to pre-existing arrears, the utility and customer may enter into an agreement which allows the payment of those arrears beyond 12 months. A customer may also request a payment agreement which allows payment of current bills, plus arrears, in fewer than 12 months. The utility is required to confirm all payment agreements in writing unless the extension granted the customer does not exceed two weeks.

The Cold Weather Rule also contains a temperature provision. A utility company cannot shut off service on a day when the National Weather Service has issued a local forecast between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., for the following 24 hours, predicting the temperature will drop below 30 degrees.

The Cold Weather Rule requires utility companies to provide certain types of notification prior to a discontinuance of service during the time the rule is in effect. Prior to a discontinuance of service, the utility company must:

  1. Mail a notice to the customer 10 days before the date it intends to shut off service;
  2. Attempt to contact the customer within 96 hours before the shut off;
  3. Attempt to contact the customer immediately preceding discontinuance; and
  4. Leave notice at the customer's premises at the time of the discontinuance.

In all of these contacts, the utility company is required to explain the provisions of the rule, including the method of calculating the minimum required payment and state the availability of financial assistance from the Division of Family Services. The utility must also list other sources of financial assistance from any agency which notifies the utility company that they provide the assistance.

This rule contains special notification procedures prior to a discontinuance of service for the elderly and handicapped who have filled out a form provided by the utility company. A utility company is required to contact those registered elderly and handicapped individuals prior to a discontinuance of service. This contact must initially include two or more phone call attempts and a mailing to both the customer and a social agency or other party listed on the individual's registration form. The utility company must also make a personal contact with the registered customer, or some family member at the premises above the age of 15, before a discontinuance of service. In all of these contacts, the utility company is required to inform the customer of the provisions of service under this rule as well as the availability of financial assistance from the Division of Family Services. The utility must also list other sources of financial assistance from any agency which notifies the utility company that they provide the assistance.

While utility companies are required to comply with the requirements of this rule, some companies go beyond what the Cold Weather Rule requires. Customers should contact their utility company to see what, if any, additional measures the company has taken to provide heat-related services to customers during the winter months.