Higher gas bills fuel questions galore

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 8, 2001

Norciss Dorsey of Port Gibson is surrounded by hundreds of Claiborne County residents at Christian Chapel Church Saturday morning voicing concerns about rising natural gas prices in the county. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

[01/08/01] PORT GIBSON When it finally gets too cold to bear, Alma Henry and her husband, a cancer patient, get in their car, crank up the heater and drive around town. Then they brace themselves for the chill, turn the engine off and go back inside.

The Henrys, like dozens of families here and thousands across the nation, are afraid to turn on their gas heaters because bills have shot up nearly tenfold over the past month. In November, the Henrys’ gas bill was $33. A month later it was $264.

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The climbing prices leave the community’s most vulnerable facing frightening choices.

“That’s half of what my check is,” one elderly woman said of her $262 bill. “If I pay my gas bill, how do I pay my light bill? How do I buy food? How am I going to have water?”

Nearly 300 people with those same questions packed into Christian Chapel Church Saturday morning looking for answers to those same questions, and officials from every level of government lined up to answer.

One after another, old, young, disabled, single mothers, stood waving their gas bills and asking two questions: how and why?

Jennie Hedrick was the first to rise. The diminutive 91-year-old told the assembled crowd that she receives $636 a month and a $257 gas bill left her with no money for medicine or food.

“I borrowed some money to pay it, but I can’t afford to borrow any more money,” Hedrick said.

Answers were hard to come by. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, said President Clinton has authorized $300 million in emergency funds to help people across the nation pay high utility bills during this unusually cold winter. But only $2.1 million of that money will go to Mississippi, meaning not everyone will be able to get federal help, Thompson said.

“My position is that the elderly and handicapped should be first, and if there’s anything left we can help the other people,” he said.

But Thompson and other speakers said what concerned them most were reports that officials at Union Gas Co., the private gas firm that serves Port Gibson, were unwilling to allow customers to pay the unusually high bills in installments, and in some cases threatened to turn off their gas in the middle of winter.

Port Gibson Mayor Amelda Arnold said she would talk to gas company officials to ensure that no one’s gas is turned off as long as they were trying to pay.

“My gas bill went from $56 to $477, so we’re in the same boat,” Arnold said. “Nobody in here’s gas is going to be turned off, I assure you.”

A representative of Union Gas, Nathan Morgan, was invited to the meeting, but did not attend.

Natural gas prices are going up everywhere, and every community is looking for ways to deal with the problem.

In Vicksburg, where the city runs the residential gas service, rates customers pay have not yet gone up to reflect the higher rates the city is paying for gas. For now, a $5 million reserve fund is absorbing the higher costs that elsewhere are being passed on to customers.

But city officials, who must approve an ordinance to increase the price of gas charged to the customer, have said that a rate increase may be unavoidable, because the extra money from previous years’ collections can’t hold out forever and prices show no signs of dropping.

Nielsen Cochran, the central district representative on the three-member Mississippi Public Service Commission, said his agency has no power over the rising rates because the charges his board regulates, distribution charges, have not been raised in 13 years.

It is the cost of fuel itself that is skyrocketing, Cochran said, and the reasons are not entirely clear.

Prices last year per thousand cubic feet of natural gas were less than a dollar, and now it is nearly $10 and rising, he said.

Part of the problem could stem from a slowdown in drilling for new gas caused by last year’s low prices, Cochran said. More new power plants running on natural gas and one of the coldest winters nationwide in recent memory could also be contributing factors.

“One of our problems is the lack of a national energy policy that would give some stability to how energy problems are handled nationwide,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a demand that something be done to provide some consistency.”

As the meeting ended, those who had gathered filed out and walked two blocks up the street to the Union Gas Co. office, where they held hands and sang, “We Shall Overcome.”

The Rev. Larry Clark, pastor of Rising Sun Baptist Church, said that the gas prices were a threat to everyone, not just those on disability or retirement.

Many of the people in Port Gibson who do work scrape by at just above minimum wage, and don’t want to see everything they make taken away by a sudden jump in utility bills, Clark said.

Shirley Thomas, who works at M&M Grocery across the street from Christian Chapel Church, is one of those. Her gas bill went from $25 in November to $366 in December, and she is afraid the worst is yet to come.

“At least I’m trying,” she said. “Lord knows, someone needs to help us with these bills, because we are not going to make it.”