Utility bill to rise just 1 percent

ATLANTA --- Natural gas bills will rise about 1 percent for customers of Atlanta Gas Light, or about 90 cents per month for the average residential account, after Wednesday's vote by the Public Service Commission.

 

It is the company's first rate increase since 1993. This time, the PSC held a series of public hearings around the state -- the first in recent memory before a utility rate case. Most meetings drew 50 to 100 people, all complaining that an increase in the current economy would be a burden.

The weak economy, though, was one of the reasons the company said it needed an increase. It has lost customers and seen its profits shrink in the five years since the last PSC review.

"It's never an easy decision to increase rates, particularly in a difficult economy," said company President Suzanne Sitherwood. "However, the action by the PSC provides necessary revenues to sustain our operations and meet the growing demands for compliance and safety work, while improving our customer-service levels."

The $26.7 million increase is half of what the company had requested, but more than the PSC's staff had recommended.

The company revised its original $54 million request downward after interest rates dropped and Congress extended preferential treatment on accounting for depreciation.

The PSC also trimmed the target profit from 10.9 percent to 10.75, but the staff had recommended lowering it further.

Commission member Stan Wise, the chairman of the PSC's Energy Committee, proposed the lower rate. He said he didn't want to take the recommendation of the PSC staff to cut rates and profits further because he said doing so could weaken the company's ability to attract investor money needed to finance the expansion of lines to new customers.

"It's important for everyone to understand that while the economy is in decline, our utilities have to use that occasion to prepare for that future," he said.

Georgia Watch, the consumer-advocacy organization, applauded the PSC for trimming the increase.

Reach Walter Jones at walter.jones@morris.com.