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Published: Friday, 3/17/2006

6-cent drop planned for rate in April

BY MARY-BETH McLAUGHLIN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

For the third straight month, Columbia Gas of Ohio's charge to metro Toledo customers is to drop, and that, combined with milder weather, should result in lower heating bills for April.

The company told the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio yesterday it will charge $1.08 per 100 cubic feet of gas for April, down six cents from the $1.14 charged this month but higher than the 98 cents charged a year ago. The new rate is the lowest since August.

"We've had a mild winter and we've got a higher-than-normal storage inventory," said company spokesman Chris Kozak. The latest rate will take effect unless the regulators object.

Customer Donald Munkacy said he has "mixed feelings" about the news of the lower rate, calling it "self-serving on Columbia Gas's part to lower rates when the winter is nearly finished."

Mr. Munkacy, who keeps his thermostat at 65 degrees and has a two-year-old furnace, roof, siding, and insulation, said he's taking "a wait-and-see-attitude" about the lower rate after he has paid his highest rates ever, including a January bill of $398.

"I just think it's disingenuous for them to drop their rates a few pennies [with the winter ending]," he said.

The average April bill will be $141 this year, compared with $127 for the same period last year, the utility said. This month, the average bill is $202.

Greeting the news of the April rate with a mixture of relief and resignation was June Kramer, whose gas budget for a two-bedroom trailer has gone from $52 last year to $109.

"I guess a little break is better than nothing," she said.

The hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast last fall so disrupted supplies that early predictions had gas customers in the Midwest paying as much as 70 percent more for their heating this winter.

Those figures have continued to be revised downward, however, as the mild winter helped keep thermostats at lower levels.

Many people kept thermostats lower than normal, fearing huge heating bills. Early on, many Toledo-area customers had natural gas bills that were about double those of a year ago.

Ryan Lippe, a spokesman for the Ohio Consumers Counsel, said the mild weather has been an unexpected asset. But, he added, the rates are higher than they were last year, "so that's a continuing concern for us."

Toledoan Robert Minnich has yet to receive his March bill, but said he still can't get over a December bill of nearly $330, up from $157 the previous month.

As for the lower April rate, he said, "I'll believe it when I see it."

Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at

mmclaughlin@theblade.com

or 419-724-6199.



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