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Electric bills rising, expected to climb more

[02/07/01] Entergy Mississippi customers are seeing rates 9 percent higher, beginning with their electric bills for January, a company executive said and it’s just the beginning.

“It’s part of the natural gas crisis,” said Checky Herrington, communications manager based in Jackson, adding rates will rise about 20 percent this year.

Herrington said the added amount is showing up on bills listed as a fuel adjustment. It represents a pass-through of some of the costs of fuel Entergy uses to fire its generators, including Baxter Wilson at Vicksburg, he said.

The Mississippi Public Service Commission normally regulates utility rates, but Entergy can pass along fuel costs without PSC action. With a cold winter pushing consumption up, especially for homes with electric heat, and the rate increase, some are seeing bills double.

Until this year, the PSC and Entergy reviewed the fuel adjustments annually.

“That worked pretty well when we had relatively low natural gas prices,” Herrington said. “But since last year we have seen natural gas prices go up 400 percent.”

Entergy and the PSC will review the fuel adjustment every three months, he said. That way, the utility can put smaller increases into effect four times a year instead of one increase at the end of a year.

Entergy customers should be prepared to see rate increases totalling 20 percent for the year, Herrington said.

Entergy’s longstanding level-pay plan, which the company calls Budget Billing, is lessening the rate-increase impact. Under that plan, customers pay at a rate that is the average of their bills the previous 12 months.

Some months, a customer pays less than the cost of the actual amount of electricity used. In other months, the customer pays more.

“We also conduct workshops for customers to tell them things they can do to conserve,” Herrington said.

For those unable to pay bills, the New Orleans-based utility has the Energy Concern program. Customers who choose to add a dollar to their monthly payments, and that money goes to the Salvation Army to provide utility assistance. The fund collects $115,000 annually, Herrington said.

Applications for benefits are available at local Salvation Army offices.

Natural gas prices started surging last fall. Coupled with a colder-than-normal winter and pass-through provisions used by many providers, bills have tripled and quadrupled for many consumers. In the city of Vicksburg, customers of the municipal gas system have seen a small increase in rates because the city has relied on $4 million in cash reserves to supplement gas bills. City Board action to change rates is expected, however.