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Gas deregulation and delayed bills could leave 127,000 Georgians in the cold
By Barnini Chakraborty, Associated Press, 10/15/2001 01:43
ATLANTA (AP) For six months, 71-year-old Carrie Morris never got a gas bill. When one finally came, it was more than $1,500.
Morris is among more than 127,000 customers who had their gas shut off this year because of unpaid bills from last winter, when Georgia was hit by the double whammy of high gas prices and rampant billing problems because of deregulation.
Now the weather is getting cold, and state officials say that even if all the households pay their bills immediately, it could take much of the winter just to get everyone reconnected.
State regulators are offering some relief for low-income seniors $50 monthly credits starting next month but many say it's not enough.
''I couldn't pay the bill without the help of my children. But some of these folks don't have people to help them,'' Morris said. ''A $50 credit isn't going to keep them warm when their bill is more than $2,000. It's not right, it's just not right.''
More than 30 natural gas marketers came to Georgia after deregulation began in 1998. Only eight remain, and three control the vast majority of the market.
The companies, many of them in the gas business for the first time, left behind thousands of customers who had not been billed for months. When new marketers took over the accounts, they sent bills to customers for hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.
Before deregulation, Atlanta Gas Light Co. delivered the gas and handled all billing. The company is still the only supplier in the state, and is in charge of shutting off gas lines when people don't pay marketers. The company also reconnects people who pay outstanding bills, but that takes time.
As of October 1, 127,991 customers had been shut off, with about 42,500 scheduled to be shut off, said Russ Williams, spokesman for Atlanta Gas Light.
When the Legislature passed gas deregulation, proponents promised lower bills and better service because of competition. Instead, many residential customers have seen incorrect or inflated bills.
''The industry which was deregulated has turned into a debacle,'' said Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman.
According to Atlanta Gas Light, the high cost of natural gas at the wellhead and lower-than-average temperatures are the root causes for higher bills.
''Georgians saw a pricing spike last winter because the wholesale price of natural gas was very high,'' Williams said. ''You had a higher demand for gas and supplies were not as readily available and so the cost rose respectively.''
Boazman doesn't buy it.
''These companies are making a profit and they want us to believe that they jack up the prices because they have to,'' Boazman said. ''They don't have to. They're not losing any money.''
Although other states have deregulated their gas markets to varying degrees, Georgia forced gas users to choose a marketer quickly and put billing in the hands of the marketers, not the former utility. Many marketers experienced technical and communication problems with contractors hired to do the billing, and developed customer service and cash-flow problems.
Many went out of business or abandoned the market. As other marketers took over their customers, billing delays became even worse. Many customers received one bill covering periods as long as a year. And with gas prices soaring, the bills were too much for many customers
This month, state regulators approved a $10 million relief package for low-income seniors who can't pay their heating bills. Help is only available to customers who make less than $12,000 a year and are at least 65 years old.
''We are in an emergency situation with many of these people with their gas cut off,'' Boazman said. ''This is an embarrassment and it is wrong.''
Janine Commer lives just outside Atlanta in a two-bedroom house her husband built 43 years ago. Commer, a retired teacher, has had to cut costs to pay her gas bill.
''I don't have money to waste,'' she said.
Last month, Commer received a $700 gas bill. She was told if she didn't pay the balance immediately, her gas would be cut off. Commer said she couldn't afford to buy arthritis medication and pay her gas bill.
''I have to make the decision, buy the medicine or stay warm,'' she said. ''No one should have to make that decision.''
On the Net:
Public Service Commission: http://www.psc.state.ga.us
Atlanta Gas Light Co.: http://www.atlantagaslight.com
-- Anonymous, October 15, 2001