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Few attend first public hearing on Columbia Gas proposed rate hike

Utility company officials listen to concerns, but do not comment or answer questions

June 10, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • John Benisek of Williamsport questions the amount of the requested rate increase by Columbia Gas Monday during a public hearing at Hagerstown Community College.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

Only three Washington County residents testified at a public hearing Monday night on a request by Columbia Gas of Maryland to raise residential and commercial customers’ total natural gas bills by more than 16 percent.

The utility company’s proposed rate hikes are intended to boost revenues by $5.3 million, so the company can recover the cost of upgrading underground gas distribution facilities.

Hagerstown resident Edward Kendall, who estimated he had been a Columbia Gas customer for more than 40 years, said at the hearing held at Hagerstown Community College that he was opposed to the rate hike.

Kendall said the company should have been budgeting money all along for the distribution upgrades.

Hagerstown resident Robert Naugle, who also testified about a 2010 proposed rate hike, said Columbia Gas already charges a fee listed on customers’ bills for distribution that creates “quite a revenue stream.”

“But I want to see the numbers that justify this,” Naugle said.

Williamsport resident John Benisek, a landlord, asked whether the increase would occur over one year or be gradual.

No one answered him.

An attorney with the Office of the People’s Counsel was at the hearing, but did not testify. The people’s counsel represents consumers before the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Testimony on behalf of the people’s counsel states that Columbia Gas’ request amounts to a 13.6 percent increase in base rates effective this October, according to a May 10 filing at the PSC’s website.

The people’s counsel is recommending the commission allow a rate increase of $719,943, rather than the increase of $5.3 million that Columbia Gas requested, according to the testimony.

If the PSC approves the rate hike proposals, the average total bill for a residential customer who buys 70 therms of gas per month will increase from $67.93 to $79.18, or about 16.5 percent, company officials said in a news release.

The company also is proposing a rate hike for commercial/industrial customers. For those customers that buy 240 therms of gas per month, the cost would increase from $223.52 to $261.92, or about 17.1 percent.

Larger commercial or industrial customers that purchase 4,180 therms a month would see an increase of less than 1 percent, from $3,410.73 to $3,425.74.

As of March, Columbia Gas had 11,796 residential customers in Hagerstown; 1,910 commercial customers; and 15 industrial customers in the city, according to data company officials provided after the hearing.

The company asked for a residential rate increase of 5 percent in 2010, according to The Herald-Mail’s archives.

Ted Gallagher, an attorney representing Columbia Gas at the hearing, said the actual rate increase approved from the 2010 request was less than 5 percent, but he did not know the actual percentage increase.

Chief Public Utility Law Judge Terry J. Romine said another hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Cumberland, Md., with evidentiary hearings beginning June 18 in Baltimore.

Romine said she would issue her decision on Aug. 9.

Testimony about the rate hike proposal can be found online at the PSC’s website, www.psc.state.md.us, by searching for case No. 9316.

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