Working to find ways to ease the burden of high gas prices on its constituents, the Georgia Public Service Commission (GPSC) unanimously approved an additional $50 refund for low-income senior citizens on their bills for March. Low-income seniors are already receiving $10 refunds on their January, February and March bills, while all consumers are receiving $14 refunds on their February and March bills.

The latest senior refund will total $1.5 million, which will come from the Universal Service Fund. Including this refund, the commission has given a total of $42.4 million in refunds from this source already this year.

To be eligible for the most recent refund, the consumer must be 65 years of age or older and have an annual household income of $10,000 or less.

In a companion measure, Commissioner Robert Baker, Jr. asked commission staff to prepare a proposal that would raise the low-income limit from the current $10,000 a year. The current mark has not been altered since 1988. Baker requested that the staff have the motion ready by the committee’s March 1 meeting.

Commission Chairman Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, Jr. said he also has requested that the state attorney general’s office look into whether gas marketers are authorized under law to charge sales tax for non-commodity services, such as distribution services, customer services and other charges to customers that they must pay, even while not using gas.

Earlier this month in a “sternly worded letter” to the CEOs of every natural gas marketer operating in the state, McDonald criticized marketers for failing to adequately alleviate consumer concerns regarding high gas prices, billing problems and the availability of payment assistance programs. McDonald said due to the marketers inaction, the commission has “literally been under a state of siege, swamped by an unprecedented number of calls, letters and emails” as consumers are “experiencing shock, disbelief and outrage following receipt of their January gas bills.”

In his letter, the chairman told the gas marketers to inform the commission of what exactly they are doing “to reassure Georgia consumers that things are going to be okay.” McDonald also accused the marketers of showing a “lack of foresight regarding the public relations aspect of this problem, the practices that have compounded this problem and a lack of resources devoted to handle this problem.”

McDonald demanded that the CEOs of the marketing companies report back to him immediately on how they intend to handle the ongoing consumer concerns.

In other action earlier this month, the commission approved a brief delay in implementing portions of the Gas Marketers Billing Practices Rules sought by three natural gas marketers, Georgia Natural Gas Service, Energy America, and SCANA Energy. The GPSC formed the strict billing rules to cut down on consumer confusion and billing mishaps that have plagued gas deregulation in Georgia.

The marketers indicated they needed additional time to make programming changes so that their bills would be in compliance with the rules that were recently enacted. The GPSC said all other marketers should be in full compliance with the rules, while the aforementioned three will have till March 1.

The GPSC also rejected SCANA Energy’s request to reconsider the Emergency Rules approved on January 17, 2001 (see NGI, Jan. 29). The rules allow residential customers to switch gas marketers once a month regardless of any outstanding balance owed to their current marketer.

Alex Steis

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