St. Louis-area residents could see higher bills from Missouri American Water
St. Louis County and St. Charles County residents would have to pay more for water service under a proposed rate increase by Missouri American Water.
If approved by the Missouri Public Service Commission, the increase would cost the average customer an additional $10 a month. A representative for the utility said the hike wouldn’t go into effect until summer.
The rate increases would offset upgrades the utility is making to water pipes and water mains, said Christie Barnhart, Missouri American Water external affairs manager.
“A lot of our projects across the state revolve around replacing water mains that outlived its useful life, meaning that it's old and prone to breakage,” Barnhart said. “A lot of our investments in St. Louis [County] for this rate review focused on replacing 135 miles of water main in St. Louis County and mainly in our operations throughout the state, that was our main focus.”
Barnhart said the upgrades would also provide greater fire protection for the pipelines. The rate hike is aimed at recouping about $770 million of upgrades made to pipelines and water mains statewide between January 2021 and May 2023.
If the Public Service Commission approves the utility’s request, residents likely would pay about $48 per 4,200 gallons used a month.
Barnhart said St. Louis-area residents saw an average hike of about $1 a month about two years ago.
“There's never a good time to ask for any kind of an increase in rates, especially given the climate and the economy right now,” Barnhart said. “However, we have a responsibility to maintain reliable service to our customers, and that's really what's driving this.”
Consumer advocates say the rate hike would further strain low-income households already dealing with high inflation.
“Families can’t afford that,” said Jacqueline Hutchinson, director of advocacy for the Consumers Council of Missouri. “What we find is people who have high energy burden, families that have high energy burden, they often have to compensate for those kinds of increases by not buying medicine, or not taking the proper dosage of their medicine and those other things that create health risk. So people will not buy nutritious foods or the foods that they need to be eating for their special diets because of the higher rates.”
Barnhart encouraged customers to use installment plans, budget billing and apply for the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program through the state’s social services department.
Hutchinson said those services are critical and federal funding for water assistance programs has increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but she said the funding isn’t guaranteed to continue.
“We don't know if those funds will be around next year,” Hutchinson said. “And the funds are still not enough to pay a family's total bill, so there's still an energy burden, a gap, a gap between what the assistance can pay and what a person is billed for their utilities.”
During a public hearing Thursday by the Missouri Public Service Commission, some residents and advocates said they worried the rate hike would disproportionately affect senior citizens, low-income residents, people of color and people with disabilities.
“Inability to pay for water leads to shut off and often snowballs into chronic health problems, housing crises and family and community disruption,” said Latasha Barnes, an attorney for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri who said she’s heard from clients about the proposed rate hike. “We emphasize the necessity of access to water as a fundamental right, and we urge the commission to reject the request for a water rate increase.”
While the pipelines need to be upgraded for safety and environmental standards, the public service commission needs to consider the effect of a rate hike on people who struggle to pay their water bills, said Jeanette Mott Oxford, public policy and advocacy manager at Paraquad, an organization that provides services to people with disabilities.
“I do understand that this is something that has not been attended to by our society and that it’s really important that we bring our water system up to modern standards for safety sake, for health sake, for security sake,” Oxford said. “But somehow we have to balance that all out so that we don’t create hardships for families that are really struggling to make it.”