BARSTOW - Barstow and Southern California customers will see their utility bills rise if a proposed rate increase by natural gas provider Southwest Gas receives state approval.

Although each region will be affected differently, Barstow area customers can expect about a two percent increase, depending on the amount of gas they use. The average winter gas bill will only rise slightly, to $26.96 from $26.71, said Sonya Headen, spokeswoman for Southwest Gas. She said the figures are based on a usage figure of 15 therms, a typical measure of natural gas use, and is needed to offset rising operational costs for the company. She said the last time the company raised rates was in April 1, 2004.

"This is the cost of doing business," she said.

Due to Barstow's typical climate, customers usually don't spend as much on their gas bills as colder regions, Headen said. Cynthia Messina, another spokeswoman with the company, said that the proposed increase will only affect the cost of operating the company's gas distribution system and not the price of the natural gas flowing through the system.

Susan Carothers, information officer with the California Public Utilities Commission, said that while her agency doesn't issue predictions, market forecasters expect that natural gas prices could see a 10 to 15 percent increase during the winter of 2008. If this occurs consumers' bills will increase but to a smaller extent, she wrote in an e-mail.

Carothers said that the company's operating cost increase will be reviewed by an administrative law judge in the coming months and customers will have the opportunity to comment about the proposal.

Council member Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre said council members and city staff are aware of the application to raise rates and question why the increase is needed.

"We want to know will it benefit Barstow, or will it benefit somewhere else, and we just have to pay for it?" she said.

She said that despite the relatively small size of the raise, she thinks it will negatively impact local residents and businesses.

"I know it's only two percent, but it adds up," she said.

In order to inform the public, the company will make a presentation about the proposal before the council in early February, Hackbarth-McIntyre said.

Contact the writer: (760) 256-4126 or jason_smith@link.freedom.com

To comment about the proposed increase Comments can be sent to the California Public Utilities Commission:
The Public Advisor
Los Angeles Office
320 West 4th Street, Suite 500
Los Angeles, California 90013
By phone: 866-849-8391
By e-mail: public.advisor.la@cpuc.ca.gov