NEO consumers share concerns about Columbia Gas’ proposed rate hike

CLEVELAND — Elyria’s Debbie Coon wonders how much higher her Columbia gas bill could go this winter as the utility asks Ohio’s Public Utilities Commission to approve a fixed-cost increase over the next 5 years.

Coon told News 5 she already pays more than $150 a month to heat her 700-square-foot home and believes the proposed increase in fixed costs is unfair to low-income customers who have to pay more, whatever as they try to save energy and consume less natural gas.

Coon said the proposed increase comes at a time when rampant inflation is hitting working families and the elderly particularly hard.

“I think it’s ridiculous, especially for the people on a fixed income, the seniors, the underprivileged,” Coon said. “How are they supposed to keep their gas, a lot of people are driving without gas right now and it’s just starting to get winter. I think what they should do is do it per cubic foot and make it fairer to everyone around them instead of just slamming everyone,” Coon added.

Robert Kelter of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which focuses on energy cases and consumer education, believes the proposed $36-$56 fixed cost is not a fair increase. Kelter believes the proposal will give Ohio Columbia Gas customers even less incentive to save energy.

“That means the smaller users are paying more for their gas than ever before, and the wealthier customers, who are the largest users, are actually paying a lower percentage of Columbia’s costs,” Kelter said. “Columbia should be doing everything it can to help their customers save energy through their energy efficiency program, but they have reached an agreement to end those energy efficiency programs.”

However, Mike Haugh, director of analytical services at Ohio Consumers’ Council, told News 5 he doesn’t think Columbia Gas of Ohio’s energy efficiency program is working very well. Haugh said the council was able to reduce Columbia Gas’s original proposal by $24 a month and get the utility to agree to fund some crucial programs.

“We were able to negotiate the $3.5 million to help low-income customers pay their bills, and then on top of that, the $70 million that goes toward low-income weather protections,” Haugh said. “With the energy efficiency program, only 11% of customers used it, and of that, the other 89% of customers paid for the 11% that used this program. We didn’t find it to be a very effective program.”

Columbia Gas of Ohio was quick to respond to our story, characterizing the proposed price increase in the following statement:

Columbia Gas of Ohio filed a clause in the company’s pending interest case with the Ohio Public Utilities Commission on Oct. 31. This provision benefits the taxpayers of Colombia and is in the public interest as a compromise solution to this procedure is reached with a majority of the parties. Pending approval by PUCO, a typical residential customer’s bill will increase by $3.76 per month.

PUCO was also quick to respond, saying legal briefs on the proposed increase are due to be filed by the intervening parties on December 9 and 23, after which it will be up to PUCO’s five-member commission to issue a judgment this winter in early 2023 .

The Commission also urged Columbia Gas customers to submit public comments on the proposed increase through its website and to take a closer look at how PUCO is reviewing its tariff proposals.

For more information on Columbia Gas of Ohio’s proposed rate increase, see this News 5 report.

Meanwhile, Coon had a simple message for the PUCO while she was pondering.

“I think you should look at that again and really think about the people of the state of Ohio,” Coon said. “Because there are many people who are struggling.”