Atmos Energy proposes rate increase to PUC

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Atmos Energy, the company that supplies natural gas to Moffat County homes and businesses, wants to raise its rates by 6 pecent, which comes as unwelcome news for local residents who feel their gas bills are already too high.

"I'm sick and tired of all these rate increases," Jodie Holland, owner of Affordable Inns in Craig said Wednesday. "Every dollar we collect, we have to divide up between different margins. I have to pay $1,500 a month for gas so a 6 percent increase is about $1,100 more over the course of a year."

Jim Diehl, owner of Carelli's Italian Restaurant, said his most recent gas bill was $501.05, compared to $337 a year ago. The restaurant raised prices for the first time this year to cover growing overhead. Diehl said he's charging about 25 cents more per pizza, and while he's not blaming rising costs exclusively on the price of natural gas, it's a significant monthly expense.

"We burn a lot of gas here," he said, gesturing to two giant gas-fired pizza ovens. "A lot."

Residents may want to blame Atmos for the hit to their pocketbooks, but the Colorado Public Utilities Commission says the real blame lies with volatility of the natural gas "spot" market.

Natural gas utilities regulated by the commission don't profit from retail charges for natural gas, said Barbara Fernandez, the Colorado PUC's chief of staff.

"People aren't understanding the issues," she said. "Utilities can't make a profit from gas rates. They're just passing on their costs, dollar for dollar, to customers."

Customers think there's "market manipulation" when they see wild price fluctuations on wholesale gas prices while their rates remain fixed, she said. The issue has become such a thorn in the commission's side that members issued an "op-ed" piece to the media explaining how the utilities set their rates.

Atmos filed a "gas cost adjustment" with the PUC Tuesday. If approved, Atmos would increase rates for residential customers from 71 cents to 76 cents per hundred cubic feet (ccf) by March 1. Rates for commercial users would go from 69 cents to 74 cents per ccf. The price of gas consumption for average residential usage would go from $83.18 to $87.39, according to an Atmos press release.

The Moffat County School District budgeted $247,000 for gas bills this school year. A rate change means the district will have to adjust what it expects to pay next year during budget preparations. A six percent increase would mean an additional $14,820 if the rate remained in effect for an entire year.

"Our year end is June 30 and hopefully we can get through this year without any more damage," said Mike Brinks, the district's director of finance. "It'll be close."

Utilities normally seek changes in the gas cost adjustment once a year. But when sharp changes occur in wholesale prices, utilities can apply for interim changes, according to the PUC's Web site. The commission reviews gas purchase costs each summer and if it finds that a utility acted "imprudently," then refunds may be issued to consumers.

Craig resident Shellee Luke, who pays about $175 a month to heat her home, said she "quietly grumbles" about gas rates, but noted that nearly all utitilities are getting more expensive.

"I'm tired of everything raising," she said. "It seem like everything is going up."

A sluggish economy and high gas prices have made it difficult for many Colorado residents to stay on top of their heating bills, said Jessica Anderson, a spokeswoman for Energy Outreach Colorado. The organization raises money to help Coloradans pay their energy bills and recently donated $15,000 to Northwest Colorado crisis assistance centers.

"The thing about energy assistance and the poor is that it's a year-round need," Anderson said. "Many people think it's a cold-weather issue, but there are 370,000 people in the state that qualify for energy assistance and low-income residents and seniors need help year-round."

Andy Smith can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at asmith@craigdailypress.com.

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