Council denies Atmos rate hike request

Big Spring City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to deny a rate increase requested by Atmos Energy's West Texas Division estimated at $11.6 million, a move that will likely force the issue before the Texas Railroad Commission.According to City Finance Director Peggy Walker, consultants brought in by a steering committee of cities effected by the proposed rate increase found the hike uncalled for, saying the energy giant could actually afford to lower rates.“The company is requesting an $11.6 million increase. Our consultant found there is actually a decrease that could be substantiated,” Walker said. “As part of the steering committee, our city has been working diligently with the company to negotiate a settlement. However, for some reason the company does not seem to be willing to settle this case. A lot of that deals with the fact that Amarillo and Lubbock have stand-alone rates, which are considerably lower rates than what our citizens pay. They are trying to maintain that stand-alone status.”The council gave final approval to suspend the rate increase by a unanimous vote in late February, a move designed to give the city time to study the request and begin negotiations between the two entities. However, the lack of negotiations will likely force the matter before the commission.“We have a June 11 deadline at this point. If the city does not take action then the rates will go into effect June 11,” Walker told the council. “Since we have not reached a negotiated settlement, we are requesting the council go ahead and deny the increase. We know it will be appealed to the Railroad Commission, although while it is in a pending status with the commission we will continue to try to negotiate. If we reach a settlement, we will bring that back to the council. If we can't reach a settlement, then it will be left entirely up to the Railroad Commission.”Mayor Tommy Duncan quickly pointed out the city of Big Spring isn't the only municipality denying the proposed rate increase.“My understanding is none of the other communities are agreeing to this (rate increase) either,” Duncan said.“That is correct,” Walker said. “The only cities where this (rate increase) will take effect immediately are those who gave up their original jurisdiction.”Walker said this isn't the city's first time deferring to the steering committee. In fact, since doing away with the GRIP system, it's pretty much been par for the course.“We've gone through this same process every year. They propose a rate increase and we suspend it, just like we're doing now,” Walker said. “The steering committee will look at it, and when it's all said and done, the number agreed upon by both sides will be a lot lower than what's being thrown around right now. It's a lot like buying a car. That's really the only analogy I can think of to compare it to.”Also during Tuesday's meeting, the council approved some rather slight changes to the operating hours for the municipal aquatics center.According to Assistant City Manager Todd Darden, the resolution will call for the hours of operation to change from noon until 8 p.m. on Sunday — the hours used during 2011 — to 1 p.m. until 8 p.m. during the coming summer season.Darden said there won't be any changes to the cost of admission or pavilion rentals compared to last year, however, as the aquatics center prepares to open May 26, with Aug. 25 expected to be the last day for the facility's season.“As most of you know, the majority of the workforce at the aquatics center are students,” Darden said. “Last year we made the decision to keep the center open after school started, and that's a decision we later regretted. We had a tough time keeping enough staff there because of the conflict in schedules. That's why we made the decision this year to go ahead and make Aug. 25 the last day. That will have the facility closing for the season before the start of school.”The center is slated to be open to the public noon until 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. until 8 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $5 for ages 3 years and up.