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Editorial: Duplicitous dealings

Take note, West County, you have been invited to a public hearing on Missouri American Water’s proposed rate increase.

Likely, you received your invitation in last week’s mail. It wasn’t flashy, just a double-sided printout of dates, times and  places of the hearings that are taking place across the state – along with a few opening paragraphs that, in theory, explain what the company is seeking.

The dates and locations may not have caught your attention, unless you read the first paragraph.

That paragraph reads: “On July 1, 2015, the Missouri-American Water Company filed water and sewer rate cases with the Missouri Public Service Commission [PSC] seeking to increase base rates by $51,028,321 or 19.63%.”

A nearly 20% rate increase certainly is enough to capture your attention. However, if you read on, you’ll know that in St. Louis County, where we already pay a sizable infrastructure system replacement surcharge [ISRS], the net rate increase is expected to be about 9.73%. The goal of Missouri-American Water is to roll the ISRS into the company’s permanent rates and reset the surcharge to zero. Nonetheless, there will be a rate increase. The idea of that increase as well as the case’s other actions – to implement two regulatory mechanisms that will allow additional future rate changes and surcharges – might make you anxious enough to want to attend one of the PSC’s scheduled public hearings. There are two in St. Louis County and one in Arnold.

Arnold, you say? What’s convenient about Arnold for residents of central and western St. Louis County?

Well, nothing, but it certainly is no less inconvenient than the meeting on Feb. 8 on the campus of St. Louis Community College – Florissant Valley.

What? That’s not convenient, either? Maybe you’d prefer the meeting on Feb. 9 on the campus of the University of Missouri – St. Louis.

Hmm, traveling to North County via the parking lot known as Interstate 270 at rush hour – yes, the meetings are at 5:30 p.m. – isn’t convenient? Is 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 9 in Arnold any better?

One has to wonder if the PSC took inconvenience into consideration.

Reportedly, the consideration it did take was accessibility.

“These local public hearings will be held in facilities that meet the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” the printout clearly states.

But one has to wonder: Isn’t St. Louis Community College – Meramec compliant with ADA regulations? One would certainly hope so. It seems that if the PSC really wanted St. Louis County residents to attend these hearings it would have held at least one in a central location, such as STLCC-Meramec, or the gymnasium of any one of a number of centrally located high schools, and at a time that was more compatible with the average worker’s schedule.

One surefire way to keep dissenters from asking questions or voicing objections is to make it inconvenient to do so.

Here is a trend that is readily visible when you start watching the proceedings of the PSC.

A utility files for a specific action – a rate change, a surcharge or some such thing. The PSC alerts the media of that action and sets parameters that allow for public comment either via mail, email or public hearing. Time passes and the PSC sends out a second media alert announcing the approval of whatever action said utility was seeking. It is very, very rare when those actions fail to receive approval. Perhaps it’s because the meetings are ill-attended. And, who sends letters any more?

Many of these actions and hearings likely go unnoticed because the media is charged with the sole responsibility of getting the word out. Rarely does the PSC send invitations by mail as they did last week. But the PSC had to know that this rate increase was going to garner a great deal of interest – 12 meetings are scheduled across the state. So why not make it possible for a more diverse group of St. Louis County residents to attend?

Maybe, they don’t want to hear from us.

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