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Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014

Rate change concerns community

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

(Photo)
Nancy Dippell, a regulatory law judge, pictured left, prepares to receive testimony.
SIKESTON -- Concerns of rising heating costs brought several Sikeston residents to a public hearing Monday.

The hearing for a proposed rate change by Atmos Energy Corporation was conducted by the Missouri Public Service Commission at the Sikeston Municipal Courtroom.

On April 7, Atmos filed a request with the PSC to increase its annual natural gas revenues by approximately $3.4 million, a 5.88-percent increase. The increase would cover non-gas costs such as operating and maintenance expenses and provide a return on investment for things like natural gas mains and service lines.

The proposed increase works out to about $4.68 per month for the average residential customer using gas for heating.

To ensure the public has safe, reliable and reasonably priced utility service, the PSC regulates investor-owned electric, natural gas, water and sewer and telephone companies, according to information distributed during the hearing.

The PSC must also balance the interests of the rate-paying public with company shareholders.

Parties in this case include: Atmos; the PSC staff; the Office of the Public Counsel, which represents the general public; Noranda Aluminum Inc.; and Hannibal Regional Hospital.

Four Sikeston residents offered testimony:

* Carl Crow said his gas bill for heating is usually $105 but it went up to $190 last winter.

Now, Crow said, natural gas prices are reportedly at a two-year low and inventories are at record levels.

Nancy Dippell, the regulatory law judge who presided over the hearing, pointed out that the rate increase is a non-gas charge.

* Harvey Cooper, executive director of the Community Sheltered Workshop in Sikeston, said his concern is that high bills from a rate increase by Atmos could cause Noranda to move

Cooper said the Workshop serves developmentally disabled residents from three area counties. "Our primary objective is to provide work opportunities," Cooper said.

He said over 50 percent of the Workshop's sales are from Noranda and most of the Workshop's clients are producing products purchased by Noranda.

Cooper noted the recent closure of a wire company along with three other businesses: C&F Foods, Medlin Press and Heritage Homes. "So we have a lot of industries closing," Cooper said.

He also presented written testimony.

* Elmer Oliver said: "It seems to me there are two reason for increases. One is need, one is greed."

Dippell reminded Oliver that the increase request is related to "non-gas costs of doing business."

* Hope Terrell said she is thankful for regulations pertaining to Atmos.

"Thank God for the Commission because when you are the only game in town you can do what you want," Terrell said.

She said she had her gas turned off for three months in the summer as it was not needed and was then charged $37 to have it turned back on.

Terrell said when trying to reach Atmos, she was put on hold for 30 minutes, which is a business practice they are only able to get away with because they have a monopoly here.

Gregg Ochoa of the PSC said the number of people who attend public hearings of this type varies depending on the community and the time of day the hearing is held.

"We're just pleased people came out and voiced their opinions," Ochoa said.

A court reporter recorded comments as none of the PSC commissioners were able to attend, although "we had planned on a couple of them attending by teleconference," Dippell said.

Among those representing Atmos were Pat Childers, vice president of rates regulatory affairs; and Jim Fisher, an attorney.

Marc Poston, an attorney for the Office of Public Counsel, represented consumers.

Atmos provides natural gas to around 59,800 customers in 25 Missouri counties including Scott, New Madrid, Mississippi, Stoddard, Pemiscot, Dunklin, Cape Girardeau and Butler counties.

According to a press release by the company, Atmos has invested about $22 million in Missouri over the past nine years. The utility operates around 2,130 miles of gas lines in this state.

Based on an audit of Atmos, PSC staff has recommended that current natural gas revenues remain the same.

While PSC staff recommends no total revenue increase, there would be increases or decreases to customer rates based upon the costs of providing service to each individual area.

A decision will be reached following a review of all the information filed in this case. By law, the Commission has 11 months from the company's filing to reach a decision.

Evidentiary hearings will be held Nov. 27 through Dec. 1 and Dec. 4-8 at the Governor Office Building in Jefferson City in addition to local public hearings.

These hearings are open to the public but public comment is not allowed during the evidence portion of the case, only testimony from witnesses who have been subpoenaed, filed testimony, or are otherwise called to appear.

A live Webcast of these hearings will be broadcast over the Internet at www.psc.mo.gov.