"We are very upset over these statistics," Bluefield Mayor Linda Whalen said Wednesday. According to an annual report released by the Consumer Advocate Division of the state Public Service Commission, residential rates in Bluefield for natural gas, electricity, water and telephone service are the highest in the state.
"The city of Bluefield spent a lot of money fighting utility rate increases in both water and gas, but the state Public Service Commission approved the increases anyway," Whalen said. "These statistics are evidence that those rate increases shouldn't have been granted and were unfair to Bluefield residents."
The report showed Bluefield customers pay a total of $287.64 for the same amount of electricity, gas, water and telephone services that would cost a customer in Wheeling $249.20, according to the report.
That is a variance of 15 percent. Wheeling residents enjoyed the lowest rates of the in-state areas studied. The study looked at current rates for 17 cities within West Virginia. Hinton customers followed closely behind Bluefield, paying an average of $273.80 in utility costs. Hinton officials have complained about high utility costs for the past few years, citing the unfairness to the town's large number of senior citizen house olds.
Beckley customers had the fifth-lowest utility rates in the statewide study, averaging $255.22 monthly. Lewisburg customers paid the ninth-lowest rate at $265.98 a month and Oak Hill customers had the sixth-highest utility bills in the study at $270.96 month. Statewide, residential utility rates decreased 4.2 percent in 2007.
The average customer who paid almost $276 a month for electricity, gas, water and telephone service last January is now paying about $264 a month. Byron Harris, director of the Consumer Advocate Division, said recent reductions in the cost of natural gas were offset by increases in the price of electricity, water and telephone service. Since 1999, though, utility rates increased 56.3 percent - or about twice the rate of inflation.
Harris blamed most of that increase on rising natural gas prices. He noted market prices for natural gas have moderated somewhat from the record highs experienced during the 2005-06 winter.
"We obviously hope that this trend will continue and that gas utility bills will continue to decrease," he said. In comparison, utility customers in Lexington, Ky., pay a little more than $264 a month; Columbus, Ohio, residents pay more than $273; and those in Pittsburgh pay more than $304.
Customers in Richmond, Va., pay nearly $316 each month and Baltimore residents pay more than $329. The average bill is based on a residential customer using 13,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 600 kilowatts of electricity, 4,500 gallons of water and a single telephone line.