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Natural gas bills rise for those on payment plan


OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Some state residents say their natural gas bills are skyrocketing when they least expect it.

Tens of thousands of gas customers likely saw their gas bills climb in September, said Don Sherry, spokesman for Oklahoma Natural Gas.

The increases are due to changes in ONG's Budget Payment Plan _ a billing arrangement that lets gas users average their payments during many months rather than pay the full monthly freight each billing cycle.

``It's really an interest-free loan, carried by us,'' Sherry said.

Customers who opt for the budget plan get an estimated bill, with a payment that stays the same each billing period. That works out to a lower payment in the winter when gas use is high, but more in the summer when consumption is lower.

Each budget-plan bill includes a line that tells customers whether their fixed payment has been less than their real gas cost.

Then in August of each year, ONG recalculates budget-plan customers' monthly payment, figuring in any outstanding balance plus anticipated gas costs for the coming year. That's what is creating the current gas-bill increases, Sherry said.

The ultra-high gas costs of last winter _ when natural gas prices paid by ONG went as high as $10 per thousand cubic feet _ are finally showing up on budget-plan bills. Gas in Oklahoma now sells for around $1.70 per thousand cubic feet, a 2 1/2 year low.

``A lot of people have been on this program for years,'' Sherry said. ``But they've never seen such a September jump because gas costs were never nearly as high as they were last winter.''

Also, the number of people participating in the Budget Payment Plan increased last winter, he said. The total went from about 70,000 customers to about 135,000.

``We went to great lengths last winter to make the plan as accessible as we possibly could,'' Sherry said. ``We saw it as the best tool we had at the time to help people _ to spread payments out over the longest period of time.''

He said ONG tried to warn budget-plan customers that a big increase was coming. It sent out yellow-orange inserts in June and August explaining the coming price jump.

But that hasn't made things easier for those affected.

``There's a lot of people that's going to get hurt by this,'' said 81-year-old Bob Walker, whose September bill jumped 50 percent from the previous month to $60.

Walker had heard natural gas prices had plummeted 80 percent since January. He said he figured his bill would remain low.
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