Customers of Ameren Illinois could get hit sometime next year with a new round of rate hikes — and bigger utility bills.

Customers of Ameren Illinois could get hit sometime next year with a new round of rate hikes — and bigger utility bills.

Ameren Corp. officials said Tuesday that they would file cases with utility regulators in Illinois and Missouri, seeking permission to impose higher rates.

But the officials, including Ameren Corp. President Gary Rainwater and Treasurer Marty Lyons, provided little in the way of specifics. They didn’t say if their utility case in Illinois would ask for higher delivery rates for electricity, natural gas or both, and they didn’t say how large their proposed increases would be.

Ameren spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said later that those details simply haven’t been worked out yet.

Ameren’s previous request for higher utility rates in Illinois came in fall 2007. That proceeding concluded last September when the Illinois Commerce Commission approved an overall $162 million increase affecting customers of AmerenIP, AmerenCIPS and AmerenCILCO.

Rainwater, Lyons and other Ameren Corp. officials spoke Tuesday morning on a conference call about corporate earnings.

“It’s important to note that while Ameren is a financially strong company, with solid current liquidity, we are not immune to the impacts of the current economic environment,” Rainwater said as he discussed the company’s decision to reduce its common dividend.

The reduced dividend will enable Ameren to retain about $215 million in cash per year, money that can be used for various purposes, such as improving reliability and enhancing access to credit markets, he said.

Lyons said last year’s resolution of the Ameren rate case is “a clear sign of the progress we are making toward restoring the financial health of our Ameren Illinois utilities.”

But Ameren officials don’t think the new Illinois rates will enable the company to fully recover “the level of costs we are currently experiencing, especially financing costs,” Lyons added. “As a result, we expect our Illinois distribution utilities earnings to fall short of allowed rates of current returns.”

Lyons said Ameren hopes to file a rate case with the Illinois Commerce Commission late in the second quarter of 2009 or early in the third quarter — which would translate to sometime in the late spring or summer.

Once a case is filed, the ICC has 11 months to decide what to do, and it typically uses almost all of the allotted time. The five-member panel can choose to grant all, part or none of a proposed rate increase.

Rainwater said that Ameren would file utility rate cases on a more-frequent basis in the future, partly to help the company’s financial picture and partly to make bill increases more manageable for customers.

A couple of longtime Ameren critics said they’d battle the company’s effort to raise rates.

“It makes me furious,” said Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion. “We’re going to fight them, whether it’s gas, electricity or both. I didn’t think they justified the previous increases.”

Bradley said that the Illinois Commerce Commission should tell Ameren “enough is enough.”

“It’s very troubling news,” said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a watchdog group.

Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or