City raises fees for natural gas, garbage pickup|[01/26/08]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hopes for utility rates to remain static amid a colder January and a rough economy for suppliers ended Friday, as Vicksburg officials passed rate hikes on both natural gas and garbage collection fees.

Under rates adopted by two-thirds of the board, surcharges tacked onto gas bills will rise from $1.76 to $2.56. As a result, Strategic Planner Paul Rogers said, customers can expect to pay about $9 more per month for every 100 cubic feet of gas billed.

Using Rogers’ calculations, a 2,000 square-foot home using 12,000 cubic feet of natural gas will now pay $175.92. Under the old rate, the same home was paying $166.32.

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Fees for contracted garbage collection for residential and small commercial receptacles will jump $1.09 to $17.89 per month, reflecting costs by Waste Management tied to the Consumer Price Index totaling 5.3 percent.

“We tried to put this off and see if we could get by the winter,” Rogers said, attributing the utility increases to market-based forces, including higher costs for public gas suppliers nationwide and fuel and garbage disposal cost spikes up to 22 percent.

Meeting without Mayor Laurence Leyens, who was attending a Friday morning deployment ceremony for the 412th Engineer Command, aldermen Sid Beauman and Michael Mayfield approved the changes.

“These are things we don’t like to do,” Beauman said, adding the increases aren’t likely to be permanent and will continue to parallel the economy.

Rates for natural gas purchased by the city had remained steady for months, prompting predictions during a mild December in Vicksburg of a winter with no looming changes.

“We have not adjusted the rates upward this year, and there’s no indication that we’ll have to,” Leyens said in December.

Vicksburg officials have said the city does not make a profit off the purchase of natural gas to resell to its 7,700 gas customers, a base that Rogers said ranks the city 190th in size among 500 natural gas suppliers nationwide.

Rogers said the base price for gas is still $12.10 per thousand cubic feet, adding the city purchases the gas in terms of thousands and bills in terms of hundreds. Prices for natural gas have risen from $13.86 to $14.66 per thousand cubic feet, Rogers said.

Much like the energy surcharges on electric bills, the fee was put in place more than a year ago to spread out customer payments and to help pay a debt on more expensive gas the city purchased, including in the year after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. In April, city officials passed a rare decrease of the fee after customers had paid an extra $5.54.

About $4 million in debt was run up during that time. A $2.5 million deposit by the city into its gas fund covered shortfalls in bills paid by its suppliers. Customer bills reached as high as $800 during the crunch. Energy costs have continued to go up overall, however.

Municipal garbage collection fees on the city’s 9,600 customers last rose in 2006, going from $14.70 to $16.80.

“So far, Waste Management has done a pretty good job. Their willingness to continue the job has made it a much easier process,” Beauman said.