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Published: Thursday, 12/4/2008

Columbia Gas gets $2.50 increase

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
The rate boost affects customers systemwide, regardless of natural-gas provider. The rate boost affects customers systemwide, regardless of natural-gas provider.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

COLUMBUS - Regulators yesterday approved a rate increase, amounting to about $2.50 a month for a typical customer, for Columbia Gas of Ohio.

The increase is the first in 14 years for the predominant natural gas provider in metro Toledo and in other parts of northwest Ohio. It takes effect immediately.

It is a gas delivery base rate that affects any customer in the Columbia Gas system, even those buying the fuel from other providers. In all, 173,000 households in northwest Ohio and 1.4 million statewide are affected.

Approved by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the rate increase is expected to generate an additional $47.1 million. The $2.50 jump is based on use of 8,600 cubic feet of gas a month, with an average bill of $96.50.

But the regulatory action included conditions that result in other changes, some of which have already taken place.

Perhaps the biggest change involves line repairs. Previously, Columbia Gas customers were responsible for service lines from their homes to the point where service connected at the sidewalk. Customers with gas leaks from the lines in their yards often incurred repair bills of hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Under the new plan, which the company adopted in April, the utility is responsible for its lines all the way past the meter.

"Since April 8, we've done over 1,200 of those repairs in people's front yards. That's well over $1 million in savings that Ohio customers have had," said company spokesman Chris Kozak.

Instead of allowing Columbia Gas to impose an immediate monthly fee of $5.64 to pay for its planned pipeline replacement program, an agreement worked out in October among the utility, consumer advocates, and state officials starts that fee at $1.10 a month for the first year.

The fee rises another $1.10 in the second year and $1 in each of the following three years to a maximum of $5.20 a month. The utility originally sought $87.2 million in additional revenue when it requested the increase in February.

As part of the rate increase, Columbia Gas has agreed to:

•Spend $24.9 million over three years, beginning next month, on programs to provide financial incentives for installing conservation measures such as programmable thermostats and air sealing.

•Spend an additional $2 million a year on its WarmChoice home weatherization program, opening the program to an additional 500 low-income families each year.

•Spend an additional $600,000 in shareholder funds in each of the next five years on cash assistance and bill credit programs for low-income customers.

•Install automated meter reading devices on all meters and eventually begin reading meters every month, eliminating calculated bills and meter-reader access arrangements for customers with indoor meters.

•Speed up its infrastructure replacement programs, which began this year. That is to be funded through a special rider on bills beginning in May, 2009.

The riders would be capped at a maximum of $1.10 a month for the first year, and could increase by a maximum of $1.10 a month in both 2009 and 2010, and an additional $1 a month in 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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