[The morning after posting this piece I was contacted by Alec O’Meara who is the Media Relations person from Unitil. We spoke over the phone and he explained that the overall customer bill was not going up nearly as much as I suggested. His explanation can be found at the bottom of the page. The situation is analogous to a restaurant which charges one fee for the preparation of food & overhead; and another fee for the food itself. The change that was made was as if the food rates went down but the restaurant is now charging a cover fee to everyone who enters. This change in the rates is to avoid “spikes” in winter heating charges. Essentially, if we all chip in year round then heating will be more affordable come winter. That also sounds Socialist to me (which I like) but come last day of March I’m switching off my service anyway.]
While it might not be your idea of fun to follow the goings on at the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) it might be worth your while.
Unitil Gas customers may notice a service charge of about $25 on their residential gas bill (commercial customers receive a charge closer to $35) which is a new charge that gets billed monthly whether you have usage or not. I spoke to Customer Relations Supervisor Jessica Emerson at Unitil who conveyed to me that the charge was negotiated by Unitil in exchange for not raising their rates. In other words, Unitil is charging people $300 a year in fees while telling people that there has not been a rate increase.
Thus, customers who do not use gas year round (i.e., people with electric stoves and water heaters but gas boilers) have each paid out $175 for seven months (April-October) of zero-to-negligible usage. But here is the kicker: Unitil would shut off the gas for just $15 and it is free to restart.
When I found this out I had the feeling that someone had just pulled a hundred-fifty bucks from my pocket. So I called Unitil to ask them for my money back. I was told me that there was no way for them to monitor individual usage (huh?); that the gas is left on as a “courtesy”–in the event that I should want to fire up my boiler in July–and no, I could not get my money back.
(By the way “Courtesy” is fast becoming the favorite term of corporate newspeak. We all know about “courtesy calls,” and then there was the “courtesy charge” given to unsuspecting bank customers in the event of an ATM overdraft–Obama got involved in over-turning that one).
Twenty-five dollars is a lot to charge for nothing and it seems rather brazen of Unitil and the Public Utilities Commission to slide this by the public.
Mr. O’Meara responds:
-When the distribution rate changes, it is after a six-plus month review process by the Maine PUC, we put out a press release when a request to change this rate is filed (this was filed in April of 2013 and took effect this January) and it was covered by multiple news outlets at the time. We also put in a mention on customer bills themselves when things like this take effect to make sure they are aware of any changes.
-As part of this filing, the upfront flat “customer charge” did increase from about $8 to $25. But, the amount per ccf customers use was also decreased in order to offset this increase. This is an important point that was missing from your story. The combined effect of these two changes is indeed an increase (and was reported as such), but only of about $6 a month or about $75 over the course of a whole year. The purpose of an increase in this part of the rate is to cover costs like pipe replacement, trucks, the people who do the work and responding to emergencies. It is the “local” part of the bill, or the part that pays for the infrastructure around you. This was the second time in 30 years or so a request to change this part of the bill was made.
-The idea behind redistributing rates in this way is not to hide anything, but rather to try and flatten a person’s heating costs out across the whole year. By lowering the usage rate, it keeps bills from spiking higher in the winter time, when people are using more gas.
Thanks for listening, I hope this answers your questions. Summer usage of natural gas is common, by the way, though on a much smaller scale that heating use. Many homes which use gas to heat also use gas eight to heat their hot water or for stovetop cooking, usage which occurs in the summer as well as well as winter. Finally, if you could, please remove Jessica’s contact info from your post, her job is simply to explain thing to customers and is not responsible for any of the above rate changes, so including her contact info urging people to “tell her what you think about this” does nothing but make her workday more difficult and would take her time away from helping other customers. My contact info is public and on our website, if you must do this please use mine instead. You can find it here:
Media Relations Manager