BELLEVILLE — Consumer advocates Tuesday spoke out against a plan to modernize natural gas service at the cost of increasing consumer utility rates.
Rajiv Ravulapati, outreach coordinator for the Citizens Utility Board, said a proposal before the legislature would cost Ameren Illinois customers $360 million to $414 million more over the next 10 years --about $500 per family.
Ameren Illinois spokesman Leigh Morris disputed that figure and said it would cost the average customer about $3.70 a year.
Ravulapati, during a news conference in Belleville, said utility companies are seeking less oversight by the Illinois Commerce Commission and automatic rate increases.
"If you look at the company's Illinois earnings back in 2012, they raked in over $140 million," Ravulapati said. "The current rate system allows them to cover their costs and make a healthy profit. This is more about a company seeking more money."
Nancy Nelson, senior manager for advocacy and outreach for AARP in Springfield, said access to affordable utilities is a top priority for AARP's 1.7 million Illinois members.
"We have surveyed our members and this is something that comes up over and over again," Nelson said. "It's a pocketbook issue and it's something that impacts them."
Morris said the proposed rate increases would not be automatic and are needed to update an aged infrastructure. He said a similar move to update electrical service in Illinois was overwhelmingly approved by the General Assembly in 2011 and enacted over the governor's veto.
"This is not unlike the process other states have adopted," Morris said. "The process that we have today for natural gas delivery service is a process that dates back to the 1930s, and it really was not designed for the era we know live in 80 years later. We believe it's time to upgrade and improve on what we currently have."
Morris said the plan would allow Ameren Illinois to invest an additional $330 million to create 250 jobs over a 10-year period to modernize and make upgrades to the natural gas distribution system.
But Ravulapati said the legislation would also reduce consumer protections. He said the bill would cut back the 11-month process currently required for the ICC to review any rate increase request to three or four months.
"So it reduces the amount of time consumer advocates, such as CUB, have to prove why bills like these are unjustified," he said.
Nelson said many senior citizens are on fixed incomes and cited a 2011 AARP member survey that found that older consumers spent 9 percent of their fixed income on utilities, of which electric and gas accounted for about to half of those expenditures. She said those concerned about this bill can call AARP's Affordable Utilities Hotline, 1-800-719-3020.
"We strongly believe that consumers need to know about these serious issues and this legislation that's coming that will potentially impact economies," she said.
Morris said the same arguments were raised when the General Assembly passed the modernization bill for electricity service. He said consumers need to realize how this could improve utility services in the state.
"This is good for Illinois and is good for customers," he said. "It will benefit our customers and benefit downstate Illinois. And an added bonus will be additional jobs will be created that otherwise would not."
Contact reporter Will Buss at email@example.com or 239-2526.