Protesters Heat Up Usually Quiet Utilities Meeting

South Jersey customers surprise agency with outcry over high gas bills

The typical monthly meetings of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities are dry and achingly dull affairs, about half as exciting as watching paint dry on the wall.

Not so yesterday. At least a couple dozen activists showed up to complain about the onerous burden high gas bills are imposing on the customers of South Jersey Gas, one of four gas utilities operating in the state, an unexpected event that might indicate a groundswell of rising opposition to higher utility rates across the state.

“Stop catering to corporate interests,” said Keith Reed, in a comment that reflected the sentiment of many at the session in Trenton, a rare time when the public showed up to complain about rising utility bills before the agency. “You are the only line of defense we have.”

The outburst, triggered by a usually non-controversial item on the board’s agenda, would allow the Voorhees-based utility to extend an accelerated capital investment program to upgrade its pipeline system. The program, initiated by the Corzine administration, aims to stimulate the state’s sagging economy while maintaining the reliability of the utility’s infrastructure.

What was so surprising about the protest is that it comes at a time when natural gas prices are near a 10-year low. For South Jersey Gas customers, they are paying less for gas than they did a decade ago, a 14 percent drop in the last year alone.

The item on the agenda, deferred by the five commissioners in the midst of so much angst, would not have significantly increased the burden. No rate hike would occur for at least a year, and if that did happen, it would probably amount to about $10 a year, according to Jerome May, director of the BPU’s Division of Energy.

No matter. Speaker after speaker rose to say how crushing rising gas and other utility bills are having on customers in South Jersey’s territory, an area that includes Cumberland County, which has a 16 percent unemployment rate.

While gas bills have been declining, utility customers have witnessed higher bills for water and electricity, although power prices have been declining in recent months. Still, even the BPU commissioners acknowledged later in the meeting the burden electric customers have been saddled with because of the inability to develop new power plants in New Jersey.

But yesterday, most of the focus was on gas bills from South Jersey Gas. Regina Williams Field, a resident of Pleasantville, urged the board to reject the proposal before it, as well as rolling back a $42.1 million increase in base rates approved by the agency last year.

Albert Behem, a 25-year-old Millville resident, said the high gas rates hobble his business. “The board’s pattern of practice is responsive only to utility shareholders,” he told the commissioners.

Besides asking the board to roll back rates approved a year ago for the utility, the critics also demanded a moratorium on shutoffs of gas service, which they claimed rose to 28,578 in 2009, a bump up from the previous year.

To some extent, both commissioners and industry executives seemed startled by the extent of the opposition.

Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso, a member of the board for the past seven years, said it marked the first time a group of people came out to speak to the agency. Other commissioners urged the protesters to look into low-income energy assistance programs offered by the state, which provide nearly $270 million in assistance to help people pay their energy bills.

That provoked an angry rebuke from one of the protesters. “We’re not asking for assistance. We just want you to do your job,” said Andy Cowgill, a member of the South Jersey Workers Benefits Council, referring to the board’s core mission to provide reliable utility service at an affordable price.

“I suspect that this may have come as a surprise to them,” said Karen Alexander, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Utilities Association, when referring to the outburst. “Obviously the economy is not fully recovered. Perhaps, there has been more press about utility rates.”