Ameren UE Budget Billing Examined
Effective today, natural gas rates for most mid-Missourians rose almost 18%. It's the unofficial start of the heating season, and for some customers the "heating hikes" are causing confusion.
"They're very surprised when people are very upset when they raise their rates, but it didn't affect their billing at all or their billing went down, so people get confused by that, and confusion means frustration," Ameren Customer Patt Olsen said.
Patt Olsen is on budget billing with Ameren UE. It's just one payment option Ameren customers have.
"The whole idea of budget billing is to make it easier on our customers, but it's not guaranteed to be a flat payment that's going to continue to be that payment for eleven months, it can be adjusted depending on what's happening with the real price of natural gas," Ameren UE employee Mike Cleary said.
When you sign up for budget billing, Ameren sets a flat rate based on the previous year's average usage. That means that you pay the same amount in the winter as in the summer, even though you use more gas in the winter. At the end of the year, you have to make up the difference between the average, and how much you actually use.
For some customers it means hundreds of dollars more at year's end.
"My past service usage was lower, but the rates are going to be much higher this winter, so I need to plan for that and not plan for the usage maybe I used last year," Olsen said.
Ameren can adjust that rate four times a year in reaction to prices.
"In four months the situation could be different, it may be more even again, I mean it's really hard to predict," Cleary said.
Olsen was surprised to see her rate go down last month, despite talk of higher prices.
"If on Nov 1, my billing is going to go up or my rates are going to go up 17.7%, but they've already wanted to lower my bill by $10 a month, now I'm not only in the hole by that $10 a month," Olsen said, "I haven't even begun to catch up to the 17.7%,"
For Olsen, catching up means cutting corners.
"Depending on where your budget billing falls, it could be a huge impact, if you're in December it could mean the choice of Christmas presents or not, if it's September like mine is, it could be going back to school clothes, for some people it could even be a matter of groceries versus bills," Olsen said.
Olsen has turned down the thermostat, hoping it's just one of the little things she can do to save money on her home heating bill this winter.
The gas company says the impact of higher bills goes beyond the customer.
"These high prices don't benefit us in any way, that money goes to our suppliers, so if the price goes down, we're more than happy to do a filing and pass that along as well," Cleary said.
Olsen said the problem comes in getting the right information to customers like herself.
"Even if you pay a monthly billing cost, you never know if its going to be a little bit higher or a lot less, so it is a surprise, that is a little misleading, because it's always a surprise whether its lower or higher," Olsen said.
Even Ameren says budget billing has its problems.
"Budget billing isn't perfect, it's a service to customers, its something we don't have to do, it's a convenience to customers, it helps get them through periods of higher bills, but it can't predict the future," Cleary said.
What the future holds is rates about $22 a month more this winter than last winter. The average residential customer will pay on average about $145 a month for natural gas to heat their home.
To find out more about Ameren's budget billing and how you can adjust your rate to pay more now in order to save on your end of the year bill, check out the Ameren's web site.
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