Heating bills leaving Nebraska residents, towns in shock

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Published: Mar. 21, 2021 at 3:37 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Heating bills are showing up now in many rural Nebraska communities, and residents are shocked at what they’re seeing.

Bills for residents of Pender that are typically $200 to $250 ballooned to $900 because of the cold stretch in February that caused a spike in wholesale natural gas prices due to high demand and a lack of supply, the Omaha World-Herald reported. Utilities that had to buy gas during that period got burned.

Nebraska municipal governments are also are feeling the shock. In Neligh, the community’s natural gas utility usually pays about $50,000 a month for its supply. The latest bill: $1.5 million.

Matt Torczon, chairman of the Pender Village Board, said no one’s service will be shut off. He’s hoping that help might be on the way or that the town’s gas supplier will be as flexible as Pender has been in allowing residents to pay off their bills over several months.

“We have citizens who are on fixed incomes, we have those citizens who budget month by month. ... They’re going to have trouble paying their bills all at once,” Torczon said.

About 15 mostly smaller cities in Nebraska got hit hardest, said state Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, chairman of the Urban Affairs Committee. The committee held a public hearing with utility representatives to better understand the problems associated with the cold snap.

Wayne said villages such as Pender could go bankrupt if they didn’t pass along the price hikes to residential customers. Pender paid nearly $370,000 extra for gas during a five-day period last month. Torczon said that amount of money would normally cover the village’s natural gas costs for half a year. Wahoo spent $511,000 more than usual.

Wayne said his committee this week will consider advancing a bill that would provide $10 million in emergency aid to communities that got “gouged” to pay off their big natural gas bills.

Some wondered aloud who made a killing on the short-lived price hikes.

“We need to look at whether it’s appropriate for people in the (natural gas) market to exploit a crisis,” said Chris Anderson, the city administrator for Central City, which avoided a fee increase by using reserve supplies and by contracting ahead for gas.

Federal agencies and the Nebraska Public Service Commission are exploring issues surrounding the deep freeze.

Meanwhile, utility managers in many communities are reconsidering how much reserve energy is needed and what other steps should be considered to be ready for the next extreme weather event.

“We may have to change business practices,” said Ryan Hurst, utilities manager in Wahoo. “It’s better than getting burned for a half a million dollars.”

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