Residents stew over proposed gas rate hike | RecordCourier.com
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Residents stew over proposed gas rate hike

by Jeff Munson

A proposed 37 percent hike in monthly natural gas bills has some Douglas County senior citizens stewing over where they are going to find the money to foot the extra burden.

“This makes no sense,” said Everett Williams of Minden, who saw his January gas bill already climb nearly $60 over last January’s gas bill because of a utility rate hike.

News that his bill may go up even more angered him and others dining at the Douglas County Senior Center on Thursday.

“This makes me so mad because I can’t afford it,” said Frances Parnell, a volunteer at the senior center, who describes herself as living on a fixed income “with no room left to pay” for utility hikes.

Southwest Gas received Public Utilities Commission approval to increase rates Jan. 1 to cover rising costs through last September. The company had not expected to make a new filing until June, however, the increases in the cost of gas forced the company to make the filing earlier.

“The driving forces behind these higher gas prices are the continuing pressure using natural gas as a fuel to generate electricity and the coldest November and December weather on record nationwide,” said Roger Montgomery, Southwest’s vice president of pricing. “While these increases are difficult for our customers, an increase now will help minimize subsequent filings later this year.”

Southwest Gas customers noticed the first rate increase with their January bill. Some customers reported nearly double the expense of what they were paying over last year. Now, with yet another rate hike under consideration, many seniors say they don’t know how they’re going to make up the difference.

“I’ve already turned down my heat to 51 degrees, so I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” said senior center patron Mary Hutchinson of Gardnerville.

The proposed rate hike, which would go into effect March 1 if approved by the Nevada PUC, reflects higher gas prices incurred by Southwest Gas between September and November. It would be Southwest’s second rate hike in less than six months.

If approved, Northern Nevada customers would see a 37 percent increase or about $37 extra tacked onto their utility bill, according to Southwest Gas. Customers’ bills are based on the cost of gas and the cost of gas delivery. The proposed hike is based on the increased cost of natural gas. Gas prices are passed down to customers, dollar-for-dollar, usually after an extensive review by the PUC and the Bureau of Consumer protection.

“This is obscene,” said Marion Parker of Gardnerville, who rummaged through her checkbook register comparing her bills over the past few months.

“Last month, I paid $40. This month, it was $105. And now they want to raise it 37 percent more? This is ridiculous,” she said.

High demand for natural gas hit Nevada and much of the United States in November and December, while commodity prices for natural gas reached historic levels.

At first Williams thought there was a mistake on his most recent gas bill.

“I looked at the thing and said ‘Oh, there must be a mistake. They must have read the meter wrong.'”

After examining his bill and calling the gas company, Williams learned it wasn’t a mistake.

“What do you do? You have to pay the thing. But for a lot of people on fixed incomes, it’s really going to be tough,” he said.

For senior center patron Gladys Gust, keeping warm may force her to spend more time at the senior center.

“It’s tough enough already,” she said. “I don’t like to set the thermostat to below 65 so I’ll probably be here more if it gets any colder.”

Senior citizens are not the only ones who may feel the pinch of another rate hike.

For Tammy McComb, a single mother with three small children who works as a cook at the senior center, news that her heating bill could go up again made her angry.

“As it is now, I just make my bills,” McComb said. “If they do this I don’t know what I’m going to do. I mean, where does the money come from if the cost of living is not adjusted?”

Douglas County Social Services Department reported no increase in the number of requests for assistance after the first rate hike. That may change, however, if the 37 percent rate hike is approved.

“I’m especially concerned for the seniors out there who are homebound and need the heat on all the time,” said Bob Smith, a social worker for the county. “When a rate hike like this happens, it’s really going to affect them financially.”

If a person or family is in need of help with a utility bill, they may ask the department for assistance. To qualify, the applicant must meet income guidelines. A significant rate hike like the one proposed by Southwest Gas may drive a lot of seniors to seek assistance, Smith said.

Seniors are not seeing increases in their Social Security checks, so they are forced to make spending adjustments, Smith said. For some seniors, there may be nothing left to adjust.

“There are a lot of people out there we don’t know about because they haven’t made themselves known,” he said. “With a rate hike like this, that could all change very soon.”