Originally created 03/15/05

Panel hears gas bill worries



ATLANTA - Delores Wallace joined dozens of other senior citizens Monday with a message to state regulators not to raise their natural gas bills.

"I'm concerned that we're on a fixed income, and we just can't afford a higher bill," said Ms. Wallace, a 68-year-old retired housekeeper who lives in Atlanta. "So we're asking them to not hike the bill. We know that we needed to come out and represent ourselves."

The five-member Public Service Commission is hearing a request from Atlanta Gas Light to increase its base rates by $25.6 million a year for the next three years. If approved, that would tack an extra $1.39 a month onto the average residential bill.

The company, which delivers fuel to 1.5 million customers statewide, is seeking additional fees on other charges, such as a fund to replace natural gas pipes and economic development.

The various requests led Lane Kollen to describe the company's plan as at least five rate increases over the next three years that will result in an additional $146.9 million from ratepayers.

Mr. Kollen, a utility rate and planning consultant, argued on behalf of the commission's adversary staff that Atlanta Gas Light should have to reduce its annual base rates by $55.6 million and use any extra money to fund a pipeline replacement program, or PRP.

"The base rate reduction will be used then to prepay and fund PRP increase over the next three years whatever they are," Mr. Kollen said to the commission Monday.

Atlanta Gas Light wants the proposed increase in its pipeline replacement program to pay for buying a 250-mile pipe running between Macon and Atlanta and owned by Southern Natural Gas instead of renovating the company's existing pipes.

"We believe the cheaper option was for AGL to acquire the SNG facilities," Mr. Kollen said. This week's hearings are the second in three rounds before the Public Service Commission makes a decision in April. They will still hear from Atlanta Gas Light officials who will rebut the adversary staff's recommendations.

Atlanta Gas Light has not received a base rate increase since 1993, and the commission dropped the rates four years ago. Since the state's deregulation of the industry in 1998, the company now delivers natural gas to the various marketers that send bills to customers.

But Atlanta Gas Light's charge for that delivery is factored into those bills and is still regulated by the state. While questioning Mr. Kollen, Atlanta Gas Light attorney Craig Dowdy pointed out that the company's proposed $7.5 million for a new economic development fee would be left up to the state regulators to decide where to use the fund to spur business around the state by building new gas lines.

"Nevertheless, it's a rate increase because it is not something that was there before," Mr. Kollen responded.

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 589-8424 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.

What's next:

The five-member Public Service Commission is continuing hearings about a request from Atlanta Gas Light to increase its base rates. The commission will make a decision in April.