Archive for Thursday, March 2, 2006

Mild winter helps with bottom line

Increased fire hazard downside of weather

March 2, 2006

With less than a month before the official start of spring, the mild winter has been good for the bottom line of individuals, businesses and taxpayers.

With natural gas prices reaching record high levels last fall, gas utilities and state officials worried about the potential for budget-busting gas bills. A cold December reinforced those fears before the warmest January on record in the metropolitan area and a mild February allowed many customers to escape the worst, said Jim Bartling, a spokesman for Atmos Energy, De Soto's natural gas provider.

"I hate to be someone who calls 'wolf,' but all the stars were aligned to make this the most expensive winter ever," Bartling said. "The only thing that could save use was a warmer than normal winter, and that is exactly what occurred."

Gas prices peaked in November and remained high during a cold December, Bartling said. January natural gas prices of 99 cents per 100 cubic feet were 36 cents higher than January 2005, but with unusually mild January temperatures prices fell as consumption declined and the trend continues.

The effort of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to enlist the gas companies in a campaign for conservation could have also played a part, Bartling said. Advertisements and public service announcements stressed the need to take common-sense conservation measures and 20,000 weatherization kits were made available free to state residents.

De Soto Multi-Service Center coordinator Jodi Hitchcock said the Kansas Social and Rehabilitative Services energy assistance program had fewer applications than expected. But she added her office had seen a steady stream of northwest Johnson County residents seeking help with energy bills.

The run of mild days such as experienced earlier this week could spell problems for those with delinquent gas bills. Hitchcock said gas utility companies were allowed to cut off service March 31 to delinquent customers. But that date can be moved up if there are two successive days in which the temperature doesn't fall below freezing like De Soto experienced this week, she said.

Bartling said some of those who have taken advantage of the cold weather rule to ignore any attempt to pay gas bills would undoubtedly be cut off. But he said the law required Atmos to restore service if customers paid a mere 1/12th of what they owed.

Moreover, Bartling said Atmos would work with customers making a good-faith effort to pay bills.

"We don't want to disconnect anybody," he said. "We try to set them up on a payment plan. We point them to programs where energy assistance is available."

Like most gas customers, De Soto USD 232's budget benefited by the warm January, said district operations and planning director Jack Deyoe. The district used about 40 percent less gas this January than in January 2005, which helped offset a 50-percent increase in price, he said.

De Soto Street Department supervisor Ron Creason estimated the mild winter saved the city $17,000 to $20,000 in overtime and salt. The city only mobilized its complete snow removal crew on three occasions, although it did call out workers to hit isolated slick spots on occasion, he said.

The city could start next winter ahead because it has a good deal of unused salt stockpiled, which will be kept from the weather in the new storage unit on 79th Street, Creason said.

Finally, Creason said there had been fewer potholes to fill with the lack of snow and ice cover.

But there are consequences from the warm, dry months. Conditions are ripe for grassfires in and about De Soto, said De Soto Fire Chief Kevin Ritter. The department has helped with a number of grassfires in the surrounding rural areas in the past week.

"We're not in a burn ban now, be we will be soon," Ritter said, predicting that a ban could come as early as Thursday's Johnson County Commission meeting.

Meanwhile, Ritter said the department was considering burn requests on a case-by-case basis with reference to the Kansas State Forestry Department's fire-hazard index.

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