Bills have residents hot under the collar

Last winter, Leonard Sand--erson kept the temperature in his home at 68 degrees. This winter, the Colowyo Coal Co. employee locked the thermostat at 65 degrees but still has seen his natural gas bills jump to $175 from $75 a month -- a 133 percent increase.

"Like gasoline prices, the companies all have a story to suit their situation," he said. "Whether it's natural gas, fuel oil or gas for your car, they're all crooks."

Although his home is equipped with a wood-burning stove, Don Randell also has gotten higher bills than he expected after Atmos Energy in November warned residents to expect increases of 42 percent to 47 percent.

And although Xcel Energy proposes a 21 percent decrease in what it charges consumers for natural gas for February, there's little relief in sight for Atmos Energy's 110,000 customers. Atmos, the sole natural gas provider in Moffat County, is not proposing such a decrease.

"We're still catching up," Atmos Energy spokeswoman Karen Wilkes said. "When we went into the new rates, we were already in the hole."

Xcel is one of few natural gas suppliers whose rates fluctuate from month to month. Atmos re-evaluates rates each November based on the contracts it secured during the summer and spot-market commodity prices.

Wilkes said customers were paying less for natural gas during the summer than the company was being charged. But it's easier on customers to keep rates stable than to change them each month, officials say.

"We're waiting to see if customers like it this way," Wilkes said.

Only the Colorado Public Utilities Commission has the authority to approve rate changes.

Companies cannot make a profit on the cost of natural gas, Wilkes said. They pass their cost directly onto consumers.

That cost increased Nov. 1. At the time, Atmos Energy officials estimated it would mean a $50-a-month increase for the average resident.

"We did go through a cold spell, and everybody got hit particularly hard," Wilkes said. "Cold without snow brings up usage because snow acts as an insulator."

Randell is one resident whose bill exceeded expectations. He estimates he also is paying $100 more a month this winter than he did last.

That's not the best comparison, city Finance Director Bruce Nelson said.

"People can't just look at the bottom line," he said.

The city's last heating bill for City Hall was $1,001.77. The bill for the same period in 2004 was $343.01, about a 192 percent increase. But Nelson said the city's natural gas bills have increased by 58 percent.

"We used twice as much natural gas this year," he said.

Temperatures, as much as prices, affect what a person's monthly bill is, Nelson said.

Although Wilkes said higher bills haven't meant more delinquent accounts, more customers are calling to make payment arrangements. And the number of customers signed up for budget billing has increased to 8,000 from 6,000 since the increase went into effect.

"Consumers are really stepping up to the plate," Wilkes said.

With budget billing, a customer's bills for the past 11 months are averaged with the current month's bill, so the amount a consumer owes is fairly stable.

"It's one program that can really help the family budget," Wilkes said.

There are other programs available to help residents who have difficulties paying their heating bills.

Moffat County Department of Social Services spokeswoman Laura Willems said that January was busier than usual for Low-income Energy Assistance Program applications. But the numbers won't be available until the end of this week, she said.

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