TRENTON – The state Board of Public Utilities deferred a vote today on a proposed rate increase by South Jersey Gas after several customers raised concerns.
Customers called on the BPU to roll back a rate increase on South Jersey Gas customers that the board approved in 2010, and reject future ones.
They described the BPU’s approval of the rate hikes as a “life-threatening” policy.
They presented a petition containing 1,200 signatures against the rate hike.
Regina Williams-Field of the South Jersey Workers Benefits Council said thousands of residents in Atlantic and Cumberland counties cannot afford increasing gas bills. She said that since the rate hike, more service shut-offs have taken place, with people having to rely on stoves and propane heaters to keep warm.
Another customer, Keith Reed, said to the BPU, “You are the line of defense we have,” he said. “Do your job.”
Customer Jeffrey Hebron said “profits at the expense of other people’s hardships is disgraceful.”
The BPU approved a $42.1 million base rate hike in 2010 for South Jersey Gas customers.
Williams-Field said the unemployment rates in Atlantic and Cumberland counties are 12 and 16 percent, respectively. She said there were 28,578 residential gas shutoffs in 2009 by South Jersey. Increasing rates will only increase the number of heat shutoffs, she said.
BPU Commissioner Robert Hanna said simply, “Our job as regulators is to faithfully fully enforce the constitutional provisions and that is what we endeavor to do.”
He recommended customers apply for various energy assistance programs that are included on the BPU’s Web site.
The next hearing is May 1.
A BPU spokesperson said the utility originally proposed an increase that would produce $90 million over a two-year period. However, South Jersey settled for a $35 million increase over a one-year period, after an administrative law judge intervened.
The rate hike would basically amount to an average increase of $10 for residents, the BPU said.
The utility is seeking the hike to replace aging cast-iron pipes, which are prone to leaks.