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Washington Gas rate hike challenged

(Published July 15, 2002)

Staff Writer

The D.C. Public Service Commission will hold the last of two public hearings on July 23 to seek public comment on the "reasonableness" of a request from Washington Gas Light Co. to increase its base rates and fees while some ratepayers are still trying to recover from high natural gas bills received during the past two years.

Washington Gas is seeking approval from the Public Service Commission for a $16.3 million rate hike, which would be the first increase in the public utility’s base rates in seven years. A spokesman for the gas company said the increase would average about $9.21 per month on customers’ bills. The company hopes to begin billing at the new rates by November.

The Office of the People’s Counsel, an independent D.C. government agency that acts as a consumer advocate on public utility issues, is opposing the rate increase request.

The Public Service Commission hearing will begin at 6:45 p.m. July 23 in the lower auditorium of People’s Congregational Church, 4704 13th St. NW. Residents may sign up to speak at the hearing by calling the Public Service Commission at (202) 626-5150.

Commission Chairman Angel M. Cartagena Jr. said that the previous hearing, held on July 12, allowed the commission to hear arguments against the rate increase from residents and other interested parties who presented evidence of how it would affect residents’ lives.

The key argument of those opposing the increase is that higher gas prices ever since 2000 have left residents struggling to catch up on payments of their previous gas bills.

"There is still quite a bit of pain from price spikes last winter," Cartagena said.

In February 2000, People’s Counsel Elizabeth Noel filed a complaint against Washington Gas with the Public Service Commission to seek investigation of residents’ higher gas bills. Noel claimed that the rates were unjust and unreasonable under the D.C. Code and that Washington Gas was over-earning as a result of over-billing consumers.

Jim Sargeant, corporate spokesman for Washington Gas, attributed the increased natural gas prices in 2000 to extremely cold weather in the early winter months of November and December 1999. This meant that consumers turned on their furnaces sooner, increasing demand for natural gas, which led to a temporary price increase nationwide.

The proposed rate increase is not as high as the price hikes in 2000 and will vary from customer to customer, based on natural gas usage, Sargeant said. Washington Gas has not sought a base rate increase since 1994. Sargeant said the gas company does not make any profit on the cost of natural gas, because the price the company pays its suppliers is the same cost at which it is sold to Washington Gas customers.

Sargeant said that Washington Gas makes special payment arrangements with customers who, due to hardship, have trouble paying their bills on time and face disconnection of their service.

"We have always worked with customers who had trouble paying their bill," he said.

Regardless of whether Washington Gas wins approval for higher rates, D.C. residents can expect an increase in other monthly utility bills this fall. D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) customers will see about a $3 average increase in their monthly bills beginning in October.

Increased bills from WASA actually will reflect a decrease in consumers’ water and sewer rates, WASA spokeswoman Libby Lawson said. The increase will be caused by the creation of two new fees by the D.C. government that will affect all utility companies’ bills, Lawson said.

The first fee, the D.C. Right-of-Way Occupancy Fee, creates a special fund that is intended to eventually be used to resurface roads in the District that are torn up for underground utility work. The second fee, a metering fee, will be used to replace more than 125,000 water meters. Lawson said the three-year effort will begin first with residential meters, with the fee paying the cost of installation and maintenance.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator