Stopping the pipeline to nowhere

Published 11:02 am Thursday, February 13, 2014

An air of mystery always seems to follow the topic of natural gas when it comes to the City of Vicksburg.

The city purchases natural gas on the open market for its residents and departmental offices to fuel stoves, heaters and anything else not tethered to the electrical grid. As with the city’s direct handling of ambulance service, the city’s direct involvement in buying natural gas is a unique deal. Most of Mississippi’s cities farm out the purchase of the stuff that gives you that little blue pilot light in your stove or water heater. For years, city officials have said they don’t make a profit from buying gas.

This week, Mayor George Flaggs Jr.’s revelation that nearly a quarter of the city’s gas use can’t be tracked at the moment has only added another chapter to the mystery.

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In the latter years of the Leyens administration, Vicksburgers who have a natural gas stove or heater felt the sting of high energy prices in the form of high surcharges for natural gas. By August 2008 — as the energy bubble nationwide grew big enough to inflate local gasoline prices to $4 a gallon — the city had raised the fuel price adjustment on gas bills five times in the span of a year. Hikes totaled $6.50 overall and multiplied for every 1,000 cubic feet of gas used.

Natural gas prices were in double-digits per unit then but have come down to $5 or so per 1,000 cubic feet this past week. Currently, the city buys from CenterPoint Energy, which has a meter station on Rifle Range Road.

Flaggs wants to see the city’s unaccounted natural gas rate lowered from the 23 percent that he said is going down a pipeline to nowhere, so to speak. That’s troubling, given the reassuring language that’s been furthered by city officials for years on the subject.

Cutting the loss, he said, to 10 percent could fund $3 million in pay raises for city employees, including raising the minimum wage for them to $8 an hour from the national rate of $7.25.

That in itself would put Vicksburg on the same track as San Francisco and Seattle with higher minimum wages. Opinions on that concept might vary, depending on individual politics. But, if it can be done by finding where all this gas is going, it will be a net positive for the taxpayers.