Propane Bill Hearing Will Be Held Soon

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The Arizona Corporation Commission will hold a town hall meeting in Payson "within weeks" to investigate citizen complaints about sharp increases in propane bills, the commission decided on Wednesday.

The public meeting will give Payson residents a chance to air complaints about increases in winter heating bills that have stunned many residents.

"It will be scheduled sooner, rather than later," said commission spokeswoman Rebecca Wilder, after the commissioners decided to hold the hearing to investigate a jump in monthly bills that has become an issue in the current mayor's race.

SemStream officials welcomed news of the hearing, saying that the increased charges were all approved by the commission and reflect the soaring cost of propane nationally. They said the company's prices remain below most other regional companies and well below the national average.

"Hopefully we can clear up a lot of stuff in a town hall meeting," said SemStream President Larry Payne, who visited Payson on Wednesday from the company headquarters in Tulsa,Okla. "We're not producers" of propane, "so higher prices hurt us just like they hurt the consumer."

Commissioner Kristen Mayes asked for the town hall to take customer testimony, explain the complicated company bill and determine whether the company had done enough to help residents cope with heating bills that topped $500 in many cases.

She also questioned a longer than normal billing cycle for many customers in December that had the effect of boosting the monthly bill by about 26 percent.

Payne said of the longer billing period caused by illnesses among meter readers "there's no excuse -- it was unacceptable." But said the company remains willing to let customers stretch out their payments if they can't pay the longer-than-normal billing cycle that hit during a cold spell.

However, mayoral candidate Kenny Evans, who pushed the commission to schedule the town hall, maintained that in buying the business from Energy West early last year, the company has pushed to boost an energy surcharge on the bill, then maxed out every other allowed cost adjustors to maximize returns, resulting in a rapid increase in bills. Evans first raised questions about the SemStream bills last summer, before deciding to run for mayor.

Mayor Bob Edwards has criticized SemStream's longer billing cycle, but otherwise defended the company's rates. Instead, he has accused Evans of exaggerating and politicizing an issue that the town council can't do anything about anyway.

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