By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer
Linda Porter put six months of her time and effort starting up Box Office Video Copper Cove n’ More in Farwell. But when she received her January gas bill, she just couldn’t go on, she said. It was the final straw, and on Sunday she officially closed her doors.
She said the gas bill for her business quadrupled, from about $150 in December to almost $600 in January. She received a letter with her January bill informing her of the new rates, including a customer charge, surcharge and a fuel-adjustment charge.
These new charges are scheduled to last for the next 26 months. Officials with West Texas Gas, the area gas provider, told customers the increase will help the company pay its lawyer fees and recover money it would have received if rates had been increased in March. That’s when the company filed the intent to increase rates.
“I shouldn’t have to pay for someone’s legal fees,” Porter said. “When you’ve been in business six months, you’re still trying to dig your feet in.”
Porter said before she opened her bill in January and read a letter from the company, she knew nothing of a rate increase, although Farwell residents say there was a notice of the upcoming rate increases in the local newspaper, The State Line Tribune.
The letter from West Texas Gas sent to customers stated, “After months of discovery and negotiation, on November 23, 2004, the Texas Railroad Commission approved a final rate settlement … granting approximately 50 percent of the original revenue requested.”
Even though Porter is upset about the increase, she said she is more worried about her neighbors.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m madder than a hornet that they went up like they did and nailed me,” Porter said. “The people who are on fixed income, how are they going to pay this?”
The increase is also on the mind of 64-year-old Farwell resident Mitchell Walls. His family’s December bill was $67, his wife Naomi Walls said, but by January that figure was up to $195.
“It was just a bad old deal as far I’m concerned,” Mitchell Walls said.
In Texas, it is legal for utility companies to pass on legal fees to its customers, said Ramona Nye, spokesperson for the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates gas and oil in Texas. She said West Texas Gas sought a rate increase, and about 40 cities in the company’s coverage area objected.
The Commission then stepped in to arbitrate between the gas company and the many municipalities. In this way, West Texas Gas probably incurred a lot of lawyer costs, she said.
But according to company officials, the massive increase in gas bills is not totally related to these lawyer fees.
“The company just decided it was time for a rate increase,” said Bruce Billingsley, branch manger for West Texas Gas in Farwell. “West Texas Gas bought this area out in 1995 or 1996 and they haven’t had an increase since they bought it.”
He said increased gas usage during a chilly December likely contributed to the big jump in January gas bills.
He also said West Texas Gas was seeking a steeper increase before the municipalities objected.
Farwell officials said the coalition of cities was able to avert the larger rate increase.
Farwell city council member Tim Kasel said the city, as part of the larger group of cities, was able to secure as good a price as possible, but added, “It’s much higher than any of us would have liked.”