Atmos proposes rate hike for natural gas

Residents who aren't happy about the high cost of gasoline at the pump can look forward to another increase in gas prices -- this time natural gas.

Atmos Energy has applied to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for a gas cost adjustment to reflect an increase in prices. The increase would go into effect Nov. 1.

Atmos Energy is proposing a 12.85 percent hike in residential rates, from 76 cents per hundred cubic feet to 86 cents per ccf. Commercial rates will increase by 13.25 percent.

In January, the average residential customer in Northwest Colorado uses 166 ccf, which puts his cost at $126.16. The increase would bring the price to $142.76

"Atmos Energy does not make a profit on the cost of gas," spokeswoman Karen Wilkes said. "The actual cost of gas is passed directly through to the customer, penny for penny, and is subject to change as gas (prices) go up or down."

Though the prices of most public utilities are regulated -- transportation, utility fees and rates -- well-head prices were deregulated in the 1970s, making them subject to market demand and usual business competition, Public Utility Commission public relations director Terry Bote said.

The increase customers are seeing reflects an increase in well-head costs, not service rates.

"Utility suppliers are allowed to pass on fluctuations in well-head prices. Atmos experienced an increase, and passing that on to the customers is allowed," Bote said.

Bote said PUC analyzes rate and fee schedules to assure that customers are not overcharged for their utility service.

Moffat County School District Finance Director Mike Brinks said that while the increase isn't necessarily a good thing for the already-set 2004 budget, it wasn't unexpected. The district already had budgeted about 13 percent more for utilities.

"I think we're probably going to be OK because we budgeted expecting an increase," he said. "It depends on the weather. If we have a long, cold winter, it may be difficult."

The increase will cost the city about $9,200 more based on projected 2004 expenditures.

That amount, Finance Director Bruce Nelson said, can be absorbed by each department's individual budget.

The city spends more than $60,000 with Atmos Energy.

"We don't like to see increases, but there's not much we can do about it," Nelson said.

"Obviously it's going to be one of those increases we have to deal with."

Atmos Energy last increased commodity rates in March.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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