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Published: Friday, 12/30/2005

Utility cuts rate hike for January

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER

Warmer weather has spurred metro Toledo's primary natural-gas utility to lower its planned rate for January, which should produce smaller heating bills for area homeowners and renters.

Columbia Gas of Ohio yesterday sought approval for a gas rate of $1.36 per 100 cubic feet, down 13 percent from its $1.57 rate submitted two weeks ago.

The reduced rate, which is still a record high for Columbia Gas, produced some sighs of relief from consumers.

"I'm relieved that they lowered it some," said Nova Dutridge, a Toledo resident whose heating bill this month was $194, up 73 percent from a year earlier. "I wish they'd lower it more."

The average Columbia Gas customer bill next month, the company said, will be about $279, down from $316 it could have been under the original rate but still up considerably from the $213 average in January, 2005.

The firm serves about 160,000 metro customers.

Prompting the rate drop was a significant decrease in the past two weeks in the price of wholesale natural gas prices for future delivery, which itself was spurred by predictions of continued warmer weather, even into early January, the utility said.

Those same factors prompted another large natural provider in the state, Dominion East Ohio Energy, to lower its planned January rate yesterday.

It reduced its initial request from $1.49 per 100 cubic feet to $1.33.

The company serves 60,000 customers in the Lima area.

The price of the heating fuel has soared nationwide this year because of tight supplies and gas production disruptions caused by the Gulf Coast hurricanes in August and September.

The moves this week by Columbia Gas and Dominion were voluntary and not prompted by suggestions from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, a PUCO spokesman said.

The state regulator has directed utilities a few times to propose lower rates because market conditions didn't warrant higher rates.

The new rate for Columbia Gas, effective today, is higher than the $1.29 per 100 cubic feet it charged for December bills and is up 37 percent from the 99 cents rate of a year ago. It is about double its rate of January, 2004.

Until now, the most the utility had charged customers was $1.32 in October.

While Columbia Gas customers can choose from nine independent suppliers, the PUCO's comparison chart from this week shows none offering a rate lower than the new Columbia Gas rate.

"This is great news for consumers," said Ryan Lippe, spokesman for the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, a state agency.

What the temperatures will bring is uncertain and what will happen to the natural-gas rates in February and March is unknown, Mr. Lippe said.

He urged people to take steps to conserve the heating fuel, such as lowering thermostats, which many Toledo-area residents have told The Blade they have done to save money.

Toledoan Mildred Delelles said she's glad she switched from Columbia to another supplier more than a year ago.

She said her bill has gone up, but she's still paying about $1.26 per 100 cubic feet, or 7 percent less than the new Columbia Gas rate.

"I'm probably a bit ahead of the game," she said.

Contact Homer Brickey at:

homerbrickey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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