High gas bills a ‘shocking’ burden

Marion County has its share of horror stories with this year’s natural gas bills resulting from higher prices.

One person found an elderly family member chilling while wrapped up in blankets sitting in a chair because of fear at turning up the thermostat.

One person has a natural gas bill higher than his Social Security check, and at least one business has a gas bill higher than its net income.

The key players in these stories asked not to be publicly identified. In the case of businesses, the owners said they need to maintain a public image of success to stay in business.

In the other cases, it can be embarrassing to be seen as desperate.

But public officials did agree to talk about the problem based on what they’ve heard from others in their respective communities.

“Oh yeah, it’s really tough on homeowners,” said Coletta Ricketts, community coordinator for Peabody.

She said the combination of a much colder winter and higher gas prices has carried a steep price for natural gas customers.

“It’s shocking,” she said. “It’s so hard on people with fixed incomes. We’re hearing feedback when they come in on other city business. They can’t believe this is justified.

She said gas bills more than $500 are common, and she’s heard of bills of $600 to $800 for homes. For businesses, she’s heard of bills as high as $2,200 for one month.

“It’s made it really tough on all small towns, especially those that don’t have a big traffic flow this time of year,” Ricketts said. “The gas company can dictate, and we have to say OK to these outrageous bills.

“Many of our homes are older, and aren’t as insulated as other homes,” she added. “There’s not much left over to do much about it. People are creative at getting along though, and they keep a good spirit.”

Dennis Nichols, city administrator at Marion, is in a situation like Ricketts where people pay gas bills to the gas company, not to the city. But sometimes they air feelings to the city. He hasn’t heard much recently, but did when gas prices first jumped.

Nichols said many homes seem to have gas bills in the upper $100 and $200-ranges, but he also has heard of many in the $600 to $700 range.

He said from the city’s point of view, gas prices have basically doubled, up more than 99 percent since December 1999, with a bill last month for $6,700.

“This is far higher per month for any gas bills we’ve ever experienced,” Nichols said. “It gives us budgeting problems when we didn’t anticipate it. For businesses, it’s got to be eating into profits. In our smaller towns with old stone buildings; that stone doesn’t hold the heat very well.”

Carol Wiebe, executive director of Hillsboro Development Corp., said she hears it from her coffee friends that gas bills are “obviously much higher” for everyone.

“People on fixed incomes are certainly in a corner, especially seniors depending on Social Security with both high gas prices and high prescription prices,” Wiebe said.

Nichols suggested that Martin Tice, clerk for Unified School District 408, might be dealing with some gas-inflated budget balancing for Marion and Florence schools.

“For December, we had a $6,000 increase over a year ago, from $3,400 in December 1999, to $9,600 in December 2000. That’s for all our buildings-the grade school, the high school, the gym, everything.”

If that wasn’t enough, Tice said the gas bill exploded from more than $7,000 for January a year ago to more than $20,000 this year.

How does the school district contend with it? Tice said, “You hope something else you planned on isn’t as expensive. You have to pay the bill, and you have to spend less in some other areas.

“We anticipated some increase, but we didn’t look for such an increase in a utility combined with so much colder weather at the same time. We’ll be hoping on the spring to be moderate. It would help if the air conditioning bill was down a little bit.”

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