Come April Fool’s Day it will be no joke. Nearly 200,000 Georgianatural gas customers who haven’t paid their winter heating billsrisk losing their service, and the threat is so real that theGeorgia Public Service Commission (PSC) is warning consumersdelinquent in their payments to contact their marketers now. ThePSC’s moratorium on nonpayment shutoffs, enacted Jan. 17, expiresthe first day of next month.

The state’s marketers said that while they don’t expect to shutoff service to all those delinquent on their payments, many will beaffected. Atlanta Gas Light Co. estimates that 14% of its 1.5million customers are at risk for disconnection next month, andthough it can only shut off about 1,200 customers a day, or 24,000a month, it does expect to begin cutting off service.

“We do not want to shut off more than we can turn back on in atimely manner,” said AGL’s Nick Gold. “It may take months to workthrough this.”

Georgia Natural Gas Services, which has 560,000 customers,estimates that as many as 60,000 have not paid their bills. ScanaEnergy estimates it has about 6,000 customers in arrears that arecompleting payment plans but will target shut-offs to those thathave “never paid or refused to work with Scana.” All totaled, thePSC estimates nearly 200,000 could be shut off.

The commission was planning to issue an advisory this weekexplaining the situation to consumers, and already has issued thisstatement: “Do not wait until the end of the month of March tocontact your marketer or you may not be able to get through to yourmarketer in time.”

Given the recent problems with Georgia’s marketers, PSCCommissioner Robert Baker said the PSC’s biggest concern is that”customers who have been paying their bills could be improperlyshut off because of administrative errors.”

In February, Commission Chairman Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr.sent a “sternly worded letter” to the CEOs of every natural gasmarketer operating in the state, criticizing marketers for failingto adequately alleviate consumer concerns regarding high gasprices, billing problems and the availability of payment assistanceprograms (see Daily GPI, Feb. 23).

Each marketer has a different plan to deal with delinquentcustomers. The PSC requires service to be disconnected only withfive days notice when payments are 45 days late, when the gasmarketer has made a “good faith” effort to contact the customer andwhen the marketer is available on the disconnection date to receivepayment.

AGL plans to begin sending technicians to disconnect gas serviceon April 2. Georgia Natural Gas said it placed 5,000 automatedtelephone calls last week reminding customers about the deadline,and said it is continuing to place 1,000 similar calls every daythis week. Letters will begin to be sent to customers on March 21.

Scana plans a “tiered” approach, starting with those customersthat have made no effort to ever pay their bills. At Shell Energy,letters are being sent to customers first who have already receivedprior notices about being disconnected for nonpayment.

Ironically, earlier this month, two Georgia marketers loweredtheir natural gas prices – Scana marked down its variableresidential price by 14%; Shell Energy’s price dropped 13%. InFebruary, Georgia Natural Gas dropped its prices 20%. Under thestate’s deregulation plan, Georgia marketers offer fixed pricesguaranteed for a year or more, however, only about 25% of Georgiaconsumers have selected these types of plans.

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