Higher heating bills on horizon for winter

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 19, 2006

Natchez &8212; The company that provides Adams County customers with natural gas for their homes and businesses has given customers notice that gas utility bills will be &8220;much higher than last winter.&8221;

Kevin Akers, president of Atmos Energy&8217;s Mississippi Division, said in a recent prepared statement that natural gas utility bills may be as much as 73 percent higher as a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which disrupted approximately 15 percent of the U.S. natural gas production.

With this warning in mind, both business and home owners have only a few weeks before the coldest weather of the season arrives &8212; plenty of time still to check insulation, make plans for eliminating wasted energy and perhaps installing a programmable thermostat, for example.

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Now also is a good time to enroll in the Atmos budget billing plan, which evens out the amounts customers pay month to month.

Akers said the company&8217;s utility customers pay only what Atmos Energy already has paid for natural gas. &8220;We buy the gas on behalf of customers. We simply pass the cost of the gas on to our customers with no markup.&8221;

Walter Tipton, director of tourism of Natchez, said the prospect of higher natural gas prices has not gone unnoticed in his offices.

&8220;I have a huge attitude about going behind people and turning our lights,&8221; he said.

The Natchez Convention Center, one of the city-owned buildings he operates, is a new building and &8220;was built with the latest energy-saving features,&8221; Tipton said.

However, the very large building is heated by gas, and he expects big gas bills during the winter. &8220;We have about 17 different air-conditioning units,&8221; he said. That is a plus, as only those needed for certain parts of the building are operated on a given day or week.

At the community center, used mostly on the weekend, &8220;we work toward turning on units when there are people there, usually Friday or Saturday.&8221;

At the Natchez Visitor Reception Center, also a large building, the city has a partner in the National Park Service, which shares space at the center. &8220;The Park Service picks up 52 percent of the cost. We have a good partner there. But we still check all our thermostats.&8221;

At his downtown store, Charles Hall, owner of Cover-to-Cover Books & More, 401 Main St., expects about a 25 percent increase in heating costs. &8220;We&8217;re all electric, but we do expect to see the monthly bill go up. We just have to bear it.&8221;

Businessman Jimmy Smith, owner of 10 Home Hardware stores, including those in Natchez and Concordia Parish, is most concerned about homeowners whose natural gas and gasoline costs may rise $300 a month.

&8220;That&8217;s $300 that will be taken out of the economy,&8221; he said.

Akers said his company is entirely on the side of customers and does not like the prospect of gas prices eating away at a family budget.

&8220;We&8217;re fully on the side of our customers in this matter because high gas prices hurt family budgets and increase our operating expenses,&8221; he said. &8220;We are doing everything possible to buy gas supplies or to contract for future supplies at as low a cost as possible.&8221;