If your latest Fulton utility bill gave you sticker shock, you’re not alone.
An error in the software used to estimate gas usage for customers led to thousands of customers being billed for significantly more gas than they actually used. The city is aware of the error and eager to fix it, City Administrator Bill Johnson said.
“We’re incredibly sorry this happened,” he said Wednesday.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the city was short-staffed and thought it unwise to send out meter-readers, especially to some of the commercial customers where the meter is located inside the building.
“We have three meter readers,” said Darrell Dunlap, Fulton’s utilities superintendent. “As of the 26th of March, we had two who had been exposed (to COVID-19).”
Both employees were tested and came back negative, but the city ultimately judged the safest course of action for employees and customers alike would be to estimate April’s bill. It’s something they occasionally do for water bills when there’s snow on the ground and meters are inaccessible but never on such a large scale.
You can tell if your bill was estimated by looking for an “E” next to the readings on the lower portion of the bill.
“I’ve been here for 15 years, and in that time, we’ve never estimated all the meters on all the routes,” said Kathy Holschlag, Fulton’s chief financial officer.
And, as Johnson pointed out, water usage varies significantly less month-to-month than gas usage and makes up a smaller portion of the bill.
Here’s how estimating a bill is supposed to work: The software looks at the usage in the same billing period for the previous year. Here’s what happened instead: The software looked a year ago plus an extra billing period further back. Instead of being based on usage for early March through early April 2019, the bills were based on early February through early March. That’s a significantly colder period, and because most Fulton residents and businesses have gas furnaces, it’s a higher-usage period.
“I’d say the majority of Fulton’s bills were overestimated,” Johnson said.
Customers on the city’s level billing plan shouldn’t see a dramatic difference, he added.
For those who’ve already paid the bill or plan to do so, that money won’t be lost — your next bill will just be smaller.
Fulton’s meter readers will head out in person this month, equipped with masks and practicing social distancing measures. They’ll measure both months’ total usage, and the city will subtract the April’s overage from the May bill.
“For the vast majority, it’ll even out,” Johnson said. “A few customers might not use as much gas in May as the overage, so it might take a couple months, but it’ll even out. But if the customer wants us to fix it now, we’ll do so.”
If you’d rather not wait, you can reach the utilities billing desk at 573-592-3111 or email [email protected] The city is happy to send out a meter reader and either issue a corrected bill or, if the bill’s already been paid, credit your account accordingly.
Aside from the estimation error, there’s one other reason gas bills are higher than usual. April was the first month customers were charged at the higher rate approved by the City Council in January.
Fulton’s supplier, Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Company, is upping the rate it charges to deliver gas, and the city can’t absorb the difference, Johnson explained. In turn, the city voted to increase what it charges customers from 75 cents per unit of natural gas to 87.5 cents per unit. The change kicked in on this month’s bills.
Fulton relies on the Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Company for its supply of natural gas. The city purchases the gas from a supplier, but the pipe gets it all the way from Kansas at a connection point near Hatton.
In late 2019, the company announced it would be increasing its rates from about 35 cents per decatherm of natural gas to $1.56 per unit in March of this year. Fulton joined about 20 other small towns in disputing the rate increase to the Federal Energy Regulation Commission in an effort coordinated by Illinois-based Interstate Municipal Gas Agency. The litigation is ongoing, and if all goes well, the rate may drop back down again to a FERC-approved amount.
“If the resolution is retroactive, our goal is to credit accounts for the difference between the 87.5 cents per unit and the new rate,” Johnson added.