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Hope Gas, Mountaineer seek rate hikes
by Troy Graham
(May 26)Milt Cohen is a 92-year-old firebrand, passionate about citizen involvement in government affairs and patriotic about the American right to be heard.
Those beliefs were strongly implanted on Cohen's personality after learning them aboard a ship in World War II. His classroom was the Pacific Ocean and his teachers were four kamikaze pilots trying to crash into the U.S.S. Tatum, the ship on which Cohen was a lieutenant commander.
"Somebody's got to fight for the little people," he said. "You should have seen what the little people accomplished on that ship."
Now, the attorney and engineer is fighting natural gas companies that want to hike their prices. He believes citizens should speak out on issues that affect them. Taking action on these issues is at the revolutionary roots of our country, he said. It's something he fought for in the war.
Both Hope Gas Co. and Mountaineer Gas Co. -- the state's two largest natural gas companies -- want to raise their rates by 13 percent. Depending on how much natural gas people use and rates, that could mean anywhere from an extra $7 to $10 a month.
Public hearings are scheduled for each company's request. Hope has hearings at 7 p.m. in Morgantown on May 27 and Parkersburg on May 28 in each city council's chambers. Mountaineer has hearings at 7 p.m. in Wheeling, Beckley and Charleston at the end of June, also in city council chambers. Both companies serve customers in nearly every county of North Central West Virginia.
Cohen would like to see as many citizens at those meetings as possible. Hope has already had a meeting in Bridgeport that was not attended by any consumers.
"Nobody wants to be active. I think we should stand up and say 'Damn it, we're not going to let you do it,'" Cohen said. "We may have to come up with a (Boston) Tea Party."
Three years ago, the Morgantown man organized a group of seniors to fight a Hope Gas price increase, taking three bus loads of people to a hearing in Charleston. At that time, Hope and Mountaineer entered into an agreement with the state Public Service Commission to freeze their rates.
"We saved all these customers millions of dollars these last three years," he said.
The companies now say the agreement they struck with the state agency is in itself revolutionary. The first-of-its-kind deal has been a success story for both the companies and the customers, said officials from both companies.
"The natural gas market has highs and lows and the consumer pays that without a moratorium," said Sonya Miller, the head of public relations for Mountaineer. "The customer is pretty snug if they are with Mountaineer or Hope."
Both companies are going to seek a similar deal and freeze their rates again after an increase is agreed upon with the state, officials said.
The freeze is beneficial to the companies, said Billy Jack Gregg, the director of the Consumer Advocate Division of the state PSC. It allows the companies to accurately project their revenues for any given year and to play the volatile gas market and buy gas at the lowest prices, Gregg said.
"The customers have enjoyed stable rates and the companies have done well because they knew exactly what revenue would be," he said.
Karen Macon, a vice president at Mountaineer, described the deal as a baby step toward deregulation that allows the companies to keep low prices in an increasingly competitive market. The PSC takes a hands-off approach for those three years and allows the company more freedom, she said.
"This gives you three years of certainty," Macon said. "It encourages a utility to be efficient. It's a lot easier to stay motivated."
Both companies say they are now asking for increases to pay for upgrades during the last three years. Hope has spent $31 million on pipeline improvements, said Sandy Manley, the company's spokesperson.
Cohen still plans to fight the proposed increases. He said he hopes to pack the Hope public meeting in Morgantown with customers. Cohen has completed research on gas prices around the country and said the rates are lower in similar sized states.
In West Virginia, though, Mountaineer and Hope have the lowest rates, a trend both companies say they want to continue.
In addition, the Consumer Advocate Division has already intervened in both cases and will most likely recommend lower increases to the PSC, Gregg said.
"They always ask for more than they will get," he said.
The companies are also realistic about their chances of getting the full amount they have requested.
"You never know what the outcome will be," said Hope's Manley. "I would say historically most companies do not get everything they ask for. During a settlement, there is a compromise by all parties involved."