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Published: Friday, 10/9/2009

Columbia's natural gas reconnect fee rising


People who use a special state program to get their heat reconnected this winter will have something else to worry about: a higher reconnection fee.

The new fee schedule allows utilities to charge a maximum of $36, plus at least a portion of the outstanding bill, before service can be restored. That's a big increase from the $20 charge of recent years.

Approved late last month by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the fee increase has stoked criticism from consumer advocates.

"It's just another burden for households that are already having problems," said Marty Berkowitz, spokesman for the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel.

He said the $16 increase is a significant amount for families struggling to pay their bills and desperate to maintain their heating.

A PUCO spokesman said the increase was made to better reflect utilities' reconnection costs.

For 5 years, the PUCO has issued a version of the order, requiring utilities to reconnect or maintain winter service for households that have fallen behind on payments and agree to pay at least part of their bill. The order allows customers to get reconnected one time, between Oct. 19 and April 15.

As of Aug. 31, Columbia Gas had disconnected 84,122 households for nonpayment, down slightly from the 85,223 from the same period last year.

According to the PUCO order, customers who get behind on their bills can have service restored if they pay $175 of the amount owed, plus the $36 fee. The $175 payment level, which is often less than the customers actually owe, is the same as last year.

The order helps customers get through the coldest and most expensive months of winter.

Customers who use the rule to maintain heat don't actually save any money, though. They are required to agree to a payment plan to cover the outstanding balance. In addition, the customer eventually must pay the difference between the $36 fee and the utility's actual reconnect fee. Columbia typically charges $52 for reconnection.

In addition to the reconnect order, Ohio has programs to help people who are unable to pay for heat, including the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which can be accessed by calling 1-800-282-0880.

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