Residents dismayed by gas bill changes

Posted Monday, Feb. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Gerald Gallagher of Colleyville noticed something strange on his January bill from Atmos Energy.

It was actually cheaper than he expected, but Gallagher suspected it was too good to be true.

As he studied his bill further, his suspicions were confirmed.

Atmos Energy Corp.'s Mid-Tex Division, which includes most of North Texas, received approval for the Texas Railroad Commission in December to increase the residential customer base charge from $7.50 a month to $17.70. That's the portion of the bill customers must pay regardless of how much gas they use.

At the same time, the consumption charge dropped from $2.51 per Mcf (thousand cubic feet) to $0.42 per Mcf. An Atmos Energy customer uses an average of 50 Mcf of natural gas each year.

"It will save me money during the winter, but it will increase my bill the other eight months out of the year," said Gallagher, who is retired. "Overall, I think it will add about $35 annually to my bill."

It isn't just Gallagher that's concerned.

In Sansom Park, city officials said they've heard from a number of senior citizens complaining about the changes to their bill.

"When they come in to pay their bills we keep hearing from our residents about how their utility costs keep going up," said Sansom Park City Administrator Karen Bolyard. "We hear their frustration over their gas and other utility bills and they ask: 'What does this all mean? What is this for?'"

Atmos Cities Steering Committee, a 154-member committee of cities served by Atmos' Mid-Tex Division, opposed and tried unsuccessfully to limit the base charge increases, said Geoffrey Gay, the committee's general counsel.

"It's just in the past decade that the Railroad Commission has been moving more and more in favor of the company with more entitlement of recovery of front-end charges," Gay said. "We opposed it, and we were willing to compromise somewhere in the $9-10 range, but we were unsuccessful."

Atmos Energy said the change was needed because the company has invested $400 million in capital projects since the last rate increase.

The rate-structure change was sought so "our fixed distribution costs are collected through the fixed monthly customer charge rather than through the consumption charge," Atmos spokeswoman Jennifer R. Ryan said.

"This new rate design conforms to the fixed nature of the company's costs such as maintaining the safety and reliability of the distribution system, meter reading and customer service."

Atmos officials say the increase will be minimal for most customers.

"Although the rate design significantly changed, the rate increase for the average residential customer is less than $12 a year, which is less than a dollar a month," said Chris Felan, Atmos Mid-Tex vice president for rates and regulatory affairs.

Atmos officials say low-income and senior citizens can request help through their "Sharing the Warmth" program and call 211 for assistance.

The company also says the average customer was paying $10 more five years ago than he or she is now, thanks to lower natural gas prices. But Atmos officials also say that more rate hikes are likely.

"As Atmos Energy continues to invest in the safety and reliability of our natural gas system, future rate increases will be necessary to support this investment," Ryan said. "The impact of future increases on the company's rate structure is not known."

For Gallagher, the change in the rate structure does little to encourage conservation. During the summer, he only uses natural gas to heat his two water heaters. Most summer months, his gas bill was less than the new residential base charge.

He believes many customers will be in for a surprise this summer.

"I understand why Atmos is doing it, but I don't think it helps the customer at all," Gallagher said. "Many are not going to realize it until this summer when they see their summer gas bills go higher and wonder what happened."

Bill Hanna,

817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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