BOLIVAR, Mo. – As Liberty Utilities customers cut back on electric and water usage, they say their bills have only multiplied under the utility monopoly.
At Nichole Maggard’s home in Bolivar, we went through recent bills and usage estimates by candlelight. She fears even flipping on the living room lights could result in another astronomical charge. Her family’s last utility bill was more than their rent.
“I know with the summertime, everyone had higher bills, but ours is currently $1,691.55 and that doesn’t seem like a logical bill to me,” said Maggard.
The Maggards barely managed to afford their July bill for $900, paying it off in increments. They can’t afford the most recent invoice.
“This month we had to choose between medications, groceries, electricity, what we could or couldn’t use,” she said.
Her family decided to forgo new school outfits and Nichole’s lupus medication.
Outrageous Water Bills from Liberty Utilities
The Maggards’ bill includes electric, water, and wastewater. In May and June, they were charged less than $80 for water and wastewater. In July, water charges jump to $434. Then in August, $1,247 of their $1,691.55 bill is for water and wastewater.
Their August invoice shows they used more than 132,000 gallons of water in a single month. KOLR 10 Investigates also dug up data from the Environmental Protection Agency showing a family of five like the Maggards would use 12,000 to 15,000 gallons of water per month.
Their bill is 10 times that. Meanwhile, they’ve been limiting baths to two nights a week and doing laundry elsewhere.
“One of the things that works best for my son when he’s upset is to take a bath,” said Maggard. “We’ve been withholding that from him except for dire situations.”
With the help of their landlord, Maggard’s husband got under the house and searched the property for a leak or something that might explain the outrageous usage shown on the bill. They didn’t find anything.
In a statement, a Liberty representative says they’re not aware of any billing issues that would impact how rates are calculated, adding that extreme prolonged heat this summer resulted in increased energy usage for many customers. KOLR 10 Investigates requested billing records to see how much higher bills were this summer than last. Liberty didn’t respond. The utility advised people to call them with questions.
Liberty Utilities Meter Issues
Customers can also request a meter check through Liberty. Lena Robertson said she called the utility for months before a technician came out to check her meter after her monthly bill jumped from about $300 dollars to $863.79.
Robertson said the technician found an issue and replaced their meter. She wants a refund for costs incurred with the bad meter. Robertson says a Liberty representative called her Wednesday to tell her their meter was working fine after all and that the technician replaced it as a precaution. Liberty insists she’ll have to pay the bill. Her household was issued a shut-off notice on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Maggard knows her notice is coming.
“It’s beyond frustrating; it’s scary as a mom,” she said.
Robertson and Maggard have thousands of peers in their plea for help. An online petition has almost 13,000 signatures and calls on the Missouri Public Service Commission to investigate Liberty. Customers can submit informal or formal complaints to the commission. Formal complaints are treated similarly to lawsuits.
Records from the commission show nine informal complaints were filed against Liberty this August. Customers are planning a protest at the Liberty Utilities location in Joplin on Monday, Sept. 19 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Liberty Utilities’ Full Statement
We experienced prolonged, extreme heat this summer that resulted in increased energy usage for many of our customers. It is not uncommon for energy usage to increase during periods of harsh hot or cold temperatures. A home’s HVAC unit is often the largest energy user and must run more often during these periods to cool or heat homes. We recognize that this may cause a hardship for some of our customers. We offer flexible payment arrangements, an average payment plan that helps customers avoid seasonal peaks in energy costs, and access to community resources that provide energy and home weatherization assistance. We ask that customers call us at 1-800-206-2300 if they need help. This is also the first step for customers who have questions about their bill. We can review their account and help address concerns they have.
We also encourage customers to register for Liberty’s My Account where they can monitor their electric usage at hourly, daily, monthly, and seasonal intervals. This tool allows customers to compare their usage to past usage and includes a weather overlay option so that customers can see the connection between weather and energy usage. Understanding energy use patterns can help customers better manage their usage.
Here are three ways customers can reduce energy use:
- Check the filter for your heating and cooling unit and change it if it’s dirty. A dirty filter restricts airflow and that means your unit must work harder to maintain a consistent temperature inside your home.
- Close blinds and curtains during the day to block the sun from heating your home.
- Turn your thermostat up. The hotter it is outside, the harder your cooling unit has to work to keep the temperature inside cool. Turning your thermostat up, even a few degrees, can help lower your energy bill.
Here’s a link to more information on our website including tips, energy calculators, and more: https://central.libertyutilities.com/all/residential/ways-to-save/energy-efficiency-tips.html.
Online Payment Portal Snags with Liberty Utilities
KOLR 10 Investigates interviewed more than a dozen people over the course of several weeks for this story. Each of them reported issues with Liberty’s My Account online payment portal referenced in Liberty’s statement. Customers said the website rarely loads and often shows discrepancies between payments made and current bills. Some have received $0 bills for months on end.
Contact KOLR 10 Investigates
If you have a story or tip you’d like Investigative Reporter Lauren Barnas to look into, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.