- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2001

Maryland residents shocked by high heating bills are flooding the state agency that oversees utility companies with calls questioning their charges.

"We have been bombarded with calls. People want to know why their bills have risen so dramatically," said Chrys Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Public Service Commission.

The commission has seven workers investigating questions and complaints about high home-heating bills. It usually does not have investigators dedicated to handling heating-bill questions, she said.

The average Washington Gas bill rose 58 percent to $225 this month, and the average Baltimore Gas & Electric bill jumped 61 percent to $172.

Both companies report an increase in calls from customers questioning their bills, although neither utility can estimate the number of calls received.

"It has been substantial," said Makini Street, a spokeswoman for BGE, which serves a portion of the Washington area.

In some cases, the company is inspecting residential meters to determine if customers have been billed accurately. Ms. Street said she did not know if the inspections were widespread.

The average bill from Washington Gas Light Co., which has 870,000 customers in the District and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, is about $225 this month, up from about $131 in January 2000.

At BGE, which has roughly 80,000 customers in Montgomery, Prince George's and Calvert counties, the average bill jumped from $104.18 a year ago to $170.71 this month.

Ms. Wilson said some of the calls to her agency have come from low-income customers who say they will have trouble paying their bills. She said the commission is referring those customers to the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, which helps poor residents pay home-heating bills.

She said the commission is considering restricting utility companies from terminating its poorest customers but said she does not know when a decision on a moratorium will be made.

Washington Gas and BGE said they tried to prepare for the winter by stockpiling natural gas last summer, when prices were cheaper.

In the fall, the companies predicted their customers' bills would increase this winter and tried to warn them through newsletters, newspaper and radio advertisements and Web site bulletins.

Peggy Laramie, a spokeswoman for the American Gas Association, a Washington-based trade group, said most utilities have done a good job getting the word out on the causes behind the rising bills.

"Our members have worked hard to try to explain this to consumers, and most of them seem to understand utilities do not control the market. They don't profit from this," Ms. Laramie said.

Gas companies say the return of colder temperatures after last year's mild winter is a chief reason for the rising prices.

The National Weather Service said the two-month period of November and December 2000 was the coldest on record. The average national temperature during the period was 33.8 degrees, breaking the record of 34.2 degrees set in 1898.

Gas companies also blame skyrocketing gas prices nationally for the higher bills.

In addition to calls from customers, gas companies are also reporting increased enrollment in payment plans that help customers manage their home-heating bills, Ms. Laramie said.

Most utilities, such as Washington Gas, offer programs that allow customers to spread the cost of winter heating into the warmer months.

Nationally, residential customers who heat their homes with natural gas should expect to pay 70 percent more on average this winter than they did last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.


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