Gas bills closer to normal

Sunday, December 16, 2001

Last year at this time, Cape Girardeau was under a 4-inch blanket of ice and snow during a near record-breaking cold spell. Gas bills went sky-high and left those who had to pay them in an even chillier mood.

Twelve months later, the fourth-warmest November on record is sending those bills back to more normal levels, according to AmerenUE, which provides gas and electricity to roughly 22,000 customers in Southeast Missouri.

Gas usage by commercial and residential customers in the area was down 36 percent in November 2001 compared to November 2000, said Mike Cleary, an AmerenUE spokesman in Jefferson City.

"Part of the decline can be attributed to the slowing economy," Cleary said. "But there's no doubt the milder weather is having a significant impact on bills. Naturally, with people using less gas, their bills are going to be considerably lower."

While natural gas is used for cooking and water heating, the biggest use by far is for heating homes, Cleary said. An average November gas bill, which doesn't include electricity, is about $44.

"Of course, that depends on how much you have to heat," he said. "If you have a small apartment, it's going to be a lot less than a 3,000-square-foot home."

But last year they got much higher than the average, and some customers even had three-figure gas bills. It got so serious on a statewide level that it prompted Gov. Bob Holden to commission an energy task force.

'Through the roof'

Locally, people like Cape Girardeau residents Carl and Shirley Patterson were irked.

"Our bills were through the roof last year," said Carl Patterson. "It was incredible. It didn't hurt us, but it could have hurt some people."

But the Pattersons say they are using less natural gas this year and expect the bills to be more manageable. In fact, for November, they only owe $27.97, which is less than a typical November average bill.

"That's not bad for gas," said Shirley Patterson, who keeps meticulous records. "Especially considering how bad it got last year."

Cape Girardeau resident Billie Ward said her heat bill got unusually high last year, too. It's a different story this year, however.

"I have not been alarmed with my bill at all this year so far," she said.

Unlike last year, fewer people are asking for assistance in paying their utility bills this year, according to East Missouri Action Agency community service representative Kevin Sexton.

"It got so bad last year that we had to relax our guidelines," Sexton said. "The number of people seeking assistance is lower, and I think that bills are going down is part of it."

The bills were so high that hundreds of people couldn't pay and had their heat turned off in the spring. That prompted the Missouri Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the state, to enact a cold-weather rule change that allows disconnected customers to be reconnected for a fraction of the total bill and then pay their bills off in installments.

While the rule has been challenged by a few gas companies -- and a circuit judge in Cole County has agreed with them -- AmerenUE has agreed to follow the rule to help its financially troubled customers.

No savings passed on

Cleary said that while wholesale natural gas prices have gone down nationally, the company is not able to pass any savings on to its customers. That's because AmerenUE is still trying to recoup money it spent last year when wholesale gas prices soared to unprecedented levels, rising 300 percent over a 12-month period.

Most Missouri gas companies requested, and received, permission from Public Service Commission for an "emergency" mid-winter Purchase Gas Adjustment, which allowed them to raise rates, Cleary said.

Ameren did not do that.

"We were paying more for gas than we're charging customers for," he said. "This year, we're entitled to recoup that. It averages out over time."

Rates are only adjusted twice a year, for periods between November and March and again for April to October. By law, AmerenUE can't charge customers any more for gas than it costs the company to buy it. Ameren makes a profit by charging a fee for the hardware -- the wellheads, compressors, dehydrators and odor injectors -- that the corporation constructed to supply gas to customers.

But the lower prices of wholesale natural gas could lead to lower heat bills next year, Cleary said. He said that all depends upon what the price of wholesale natural gas ends up costing AmerenUE by the end of winter.

"It changes all the time," he said. "Just like the weather."

335-6611, extension 137

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