City’s gas prices rise as temps fall|[03/26/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Higher natural gas charges were approved by Vicksburg officials Tuesday, but the new rates come at a time when usage normally plummets by those whose primary use of the fuel is home heating.

Strategic Planner Paul Rogers said prices have surged to $4.35 per unit from $2.56 the last time fuel cost surcharges were locked in to bills the city’s 10,000 metered customers pay monthly. The surcharges, referred to as purchased gas adjustments on utility bills, are in addition to the $12.10 per thousand cubic foot base price, which includes all costs the city incurs for buying gas, already set by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

Even though the rates have risen by about 40 percent, the difference in the total bill will only change by about 10 percent because the base rate people pay will remain the same, Rogers said. The new rates mean it will cost $196.22 for the approximately 12,000 cubic feet of gas it would take to heat a 2,000-square-foot home in a typical winter month, up from $174.74 when the last increase was approved in January, said purchasing director Tim Smith.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

With usage down due to warmer temperatures, it is more likely a person will use about 3,500 cubic feet of natural gas next month, which would be reflected on bills as $60.59. Under the old rate, a person would likely pay $54.32.

The rise, Rogers said, is due to a longer and colder winter in the Northeast. Each year, Rogers purchases natural gas for the city to resell. The purchase is made on a futures market, which, essentially, is a guessing game to try to determine how much of the resource is needed based on how cold winter months could be. Once Rogers purchases the gas, the Mayor and Board of Aldermen vote to set rates. The rates don’t change unless at least two-thirds of the board agrees.

Vicksburg is one of a few communities in Mississippi that has not sold its municipal utilities to private providers. The city has contracted out garbage collection and disposal and meter reading. Mayor Laurence Leyens said keeping rates high enough to pay for fuel and operating overhead with no profit margin required gives customers a break. Many residents, however, do not agree and accuse the city of having rates higher than they need to be.The city, however, in 2006, incurred a $4 million debt from purchasing gas because of an unexpected surge in prices that went as high as $16 per thousand cubic feet before rates were adjusted.

To resolve the debt, customers were required to pay higher surcharges. Payments from October 2005 to October 2006 were to go toward the purchase of more gas and to repay the city for what had already been spent. Local rates also increased during that time.

“In 2005-2006, we were in a corner. We had to increase the rates,” Rogers said. “We had to borrow even though we raised the rates to keep the gas fund afloat. If not, we wouldn’t have had money to pay (city) staff. It would have depleted the general fund.”

Even though the board approved the most recent rate increase, Leyens commented on the fact that increasing spring-like weather would leave little effect on residents’ bills.

“Rates are up. Usage is down,” he said.

Smith said rates are expected to continue their rise through the summer. In April, gas will cost the city $9.44 per thousand cubic feet and $9.60 in August, which means local rates are sure to be affected.

“When gas goes up, the city has to go up,” Smith said. “I hope everything can go back down, but that all hinges on the east.”