Concerns over utility customers feeling sticker shock on heating bills
by Heather Tomlinson Commonwealth Journal
Officials hope to help city utility customers avoid serious sticker shock when they open their February bills.
Somerset City councilors during Monday’s meeting voted to offer a one-time credit to residential city utility customers and residential natural gas customers located outside the city in the wake of some of the coldest temperatures to sweep through in more than 15 years.
“We haven’t experienced that a long time,” said Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler.
Girdler said several city councilors had asked about a discount after temperatures in the area dipped near 0 degrees for two days straight on Jan. 6 and 7. Wind chills plummeted to a dangerous negative 20 degrees, approximately, in the overnight hours over the two-day stretch.
Girdler said the weather even led to some “scary moments” when parts of the city’s extensive natural gas supply network began freezing up — namely, the pumps that send the natural resource across the state.
“We’re not used to severe weather,” said Girdler. “If it stayed cold for weeks ... I think all of our systems would be in trouble so I think we need to account for that in the future.”
Girdler said the system survived the cold snap, and he said the weather resulted in an increased demand for natural gas.
“We can put that back to the people as a one time credit since it’s not happened in a decade.” said Girdler.
Girdler suggested a one-time credit of $30 to go to electric and natural gas customers who live in the city. He also suggested a $15 credit for natural gas customers who live outside the city limits.
The discount would be applied in February.
“People on fixed income, $30 could be a whole lot,” said Councilor Jerry Wheel-don.
The request was approved unanimously.
“This is just a small way of saying we appreciate our cust-omers and helping them out,” said Girdler.
Many of the councilors, minus an absent Jerry Burnett, also took time out during Monday’s meeting to praise the city’s waste-water, road, and utility employees’ work through the bitterly cold snap.
“People and equipment can’t operate when it’s 15 below zero,” said Councilor Jim Eastham.
Eastham pointed out that road salt doesn’t work at a certain temperature.
But nonetheless, some employees were out and about in the dangerous temperatures.
“They did a fine job,” said Councilor Pat Bourne. “I appreciate them.”
In other news from the Monday Somerset City Council meeting:
• Councilor Tom Eastham asked about a number of fee refunds that were given out concerning the city’s recreational basketball league at Rocky Hollow, located on South Central Avenue. Girdler said the city decided to drastically cut bask-etball participation fees from $50 per child down to $10. The move is similar to what officials did concerning soccer league fees at Somersport Park.
Girdler said those families who had already paid the $50 fee received a refund for the difference.
“I think they’ve had a tremendous increase in basketball (enrollment),” said Girdler.
The increase in basketball participants brought up another issue that the council had recently discussed: Expanding Rocky Hol-low’s basketball courts.
Wheeldon asked that the city take a serious look at an expansion, especially in the face of increased participation.
“They’re in dire need of another floor,” said Wheeldon. “I think we need to be looking at expanding the ... floor space where they can play ball.
“When you’ve got 38 teams on one floor, you’re overcrowded,” added Wheeldon. “They could have a lot more, they just need space.”
Jim Eastham had brought a possible expansion up in a prior council meeting.
The council approved authorizing an architect to look into expanding Rocky Hollow, and possibly to study whether the Somerset Family Fitness Center, located on East Somerset Church Road, can be expanded in case the Rocky Hollow expansion is not feasible.
Girdler said the study should cost less than $5,000.
• Girdler said another 2,000 recycling bins should be delivered to city trash pick-up customers by today.
• Councilor Jim Mitchell said he stopped by Time Warner Cable to try to get to the bottom of an issue with the city council meeting broad-casts. A technical issue had made the meeting nearly impossible to hear. The problem was solved shortly ther-eafter.
• Bourne asked if the city still had plans on building some type of amphitheater at Rocky Hollow Park.
Girdler said the city’s Parks and Recreation director Joe Ford had met several times with the Watershed Alliance and reviewed some possible designs.