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Propane users stunned by high bills

Saturday, February 3, 2001



When your monthly income is $777 and your heating bill is $330, some decisions have to be made.

"I guess you've either got to freeze to death or starve to death," said Margaret Blair of Mt. Morris.

Other local users of propane gas are facing the same kind of dilemma as Blair as they contend with skyrocketing energy bills. The average propane customer in Michigan is paying about 40 percent more than last year because of increased demand and the overall jump in energy costs.

Since much of the state isn't serviced by natural gas, that leaves lots of Michigan residents with no heating option but propane. And with no option but to dig deep in their wallets to pay the bills.

Blair, 71, a customer of Parker's Propane in Flint for 11 years, said her bill has never been this high. Her monthly income comes from Social Security and her late husband's General Motors pension.

"I've got a lot of big bills coming up: taxes, house and car insurance," she said. "I hope I'll be able to cover it."

Parker's Propane is trying everything possible to help customers such as Blair, said Pat Kloha, manager.

"I've had many, many, many calls," Kloha said. "We are definitely trying to help these people get through this."

The company is offering customers payment plans and up to 60 days to pay their bills.

"There's not much we can do about it," Kloha said. "We try our best and not penalize them if we can. We are kind of the middleman here - just the bearer of bad news."

Michigan is one of the largest purchasers of propane in the United States, according to the Michigan Propane Gas Association. Residential and commercial consumers used 570 million gallons of propane in Michigan in 1999. Another 133 million gallons were used for industrial purposes.

Propane users can take some steps to lower their bills, said Chris Kindsvatter, a consultant to the association.

"Besides putting back the thermostat and putting on more sweaters, homeowners can better insulate their homes," he said. "You can buy a full tank of propane during the summer, when costs tend to be less, and you'll be a little ahead of the winter."

Propane users already benefit from a competitive market.

"In the Flint area, you have probably 20 propane dealers who can compete with price and service and value," Kindsvatter said. "Unlike the monopoly in natural gas, where you have only one company to choose from, with propane you have a choice."

There's also good news ahead for propane users.

They may be paying less than natural gas customers come April 1 when Consumers Energy and Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. intend to increase rates.

If approved by state regulators, MichCon will raise rates by about 75 percent. Consumers promises it will keep rates under a ceiling of $5.69 per thousand cubic feet and expects an increase of about 50 percent.

Emily Robinson covers nonprofit agencies and general assignment. She can be reached at (810) 766-6249 or***

-- Martin Thompson (, February 05, 2001

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