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Rebate checks on the way for Illinois Ameren customers


St. Louis, MO – Soaring electricity costs have taken a bite out the bottom line at Ken Clarida's fast-food restaurant in the southern Illinois town of Benton, prompting him to raise prices, including a 50-cent markup on hamburgers, to $1.99.

Clarida, who's also grappling with a recent $1-an-hour increase in the state's minimum wage, got some good news Monday with the announcement by Ameren Corp. that long-awaited rate relief was on the way in the form of rebate checks or bill credits.

St. Louis-based Ameren said it would begin mailing the checks Wednesday to its Illinois customers.

Although Clarida wasn't sure how much relief to expect, he considered it a good start. "It does matter, don't get me wrong. We'd greatly appreciate the relief," he said during the lunchtime hustle at his eatery, Mr. D's Drive-In, 80 miles east of St. Louis.

But "it's not going to do me any good to have three years of relief, two years of relief, six months of relief and, bang, then get hit with the same rates we have now."

Ameren held news conferences in several Illinois cities to trumpet the $140 million in relief to its customers in central and southern Illinois, promising each customer would get at least $100 back by the end of the year $85 through the initial checks or credits, the rest through monthly credits.

The company said checks would be sent to 935,000 residential customers and continue for a month, closely synched to the company's billing cycle. Credits will show up on bills sent to 133,000 residential customers who are behind in payments by at least two months and on bills for 13,000 small business owners.

Customers who don't use electricity to heat their homes will get about $130 back this year, and customers who have electric heat will get about $400. Customers using massive amounts of electricity will see $1,000 or more in rebates and credits.

The deal rolls back the increases customers paid this year by about half, with the actual rebate tied to electric usage.

The checks and credits are part of a $1 billion rate relief package negotiated by the utilities and state lawmakers to ease customer outrage after a 10-year rate freeze ended in January and electric bills spiked. Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the package into law two weeks ago

"Our customers have asked for rate relief, and today we are beginning to deliver it," Ron Pate, vice president of regional operations for Ameren's Illinois utilities, told reporters.

Brad VanHoose let Ameren know he wasn't thrilled.

The 40-year-old Belleville man crashed Ameren's event Monday in East St. Louis with small placards with slogans he'd scrawled in magic marker: "Illinois Consumers: Fleeced," "What Rate Relief" and "Bad Idea 4 Illinois." Using a walker, he then left.

VanHoose, a part-time worker for a small home-improvement outfit, later said he wasn't necessarily put off by seeing his home electric bill jump $50 to $60 a month. But he said he worries the "collateral damage" the affect of higher electric costs on businesses such as Clarida's will send Illinois businesses packing.

"I see this rate increase as a way that Ameren is inching in to the standard of living in Illinois," he told The Associated Press by telephone. "To me, they're spitting chump change back at the people of Illinois. It's one-time money with no assurances of long-term rate relief or longtime rate fairness."

Ameren customers are seeing larger rebates on average than ComEd customers because they were hit particularly hard by the increases. Some saw their bills climb by hundreds of dollars when the new rates took effect in January.

Customers for both Ameren and ComEd are in line for bill credits in 2008 and 2009, but those get smaller as the higher rates are phased back in.

ComEd spokeswoman Judy Rader said ComEd customers will begin seeing bill credits of an average of $60 in their October bills, which will be sent out starting at the end of September. ComEd bill credits for the rest of the year will average about $7 a month, she said.

Ameren spokesman Shelley Epstein said customers who don't see money back by late October or who have complaints should contact the utility.

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