Waukee residents complain of steep gas bills from city's utility after February's frigid blast

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

Chris Gamble feels lucky his heating costs didn’t spike as high as some other Waukee residents’ bills following last month’s frigid blast.

Gamble said his heating bill for February from the municipal gas utility jumped to around $300, nearly 70% higher than his $180 tab for January.

“It’s a shock,” he said. “You expect your costs to go up with the extreme cold, but that’s quite a jump.”

Some residents posting on Facebook and other social media say their March gas bills were double or more.

“You hear some guys’ bills were $800, $900 for gas and water,” Gamble said. “I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess.”

The Arctic wave that brought record low temperatures to Iowa and wintry conditions elsewhere, including in states to the south lhat rarely see such conditions, drove natural gas demand to record highs. At the same time, many natural gas wells in Texas and Oklahoma froze, limiting supplies and sending prices skyrocketing.

Late last week, the city of Waukee warned residents that March bills for gas service would average about $200 more than for the previous month, given a 41% increase in natural gas use during the blistering cold.

The Waukee City Council agreed this week to provide $50,000 to help low-income residents cope with the effects of the higher bills, in addition to aid already allocated to help pay rent and utilities. The city also is giving customers up to 18 months to pay off the higher charges.

Gamble said the high utility bills have dominated discussions among Waukee residents online and at community events. He and others question why Waukee doesn’t let MidAmerican Energy take over gas service to the western suburb’s 25,000 residents.

The Des Moines company, Iowa’s largest utility, already provides electricity in Waukee.

“The first time I thought about it was when I opened that giant (gas) bill,” Gamble said.

Mayor Courtney Clarke said Waukee’s natural gas increase is similar to MidAmerican’s. That company, owned by Warren Buffett-led Berkshire Hathaway, said last week that residential gas customers would see an average annualized increase of $214. It’s asking the Iowa Utilities Board to allow it to spread the spike over several months.

MidAmerican said monthly bills would climb between $13 and $18, depending on how long the utility can take to recoup the costs. MidAmerican said commercial gas customers would pay an average of $1,182 more than usual — or roughly $100 a month.

After hearing from Waukee residents at this week’s council meeting, Clarke said members agreed to re-evaluate whether to have more than one natural gas provider. Currently, the city gets its gas from Clayton Energy, based in Wahoo, Nebraska.

“It’s more than met our needs over the years,” Clarke said, “but there could be opportunities to buy from others.”

The council also plans to look at the city’s hedging strategy and natural gas storage capabilities. Hedging locks in prices and helps insulate consumers from dramatic increases. Storage provides reserves that are available in times of peak demand.

Clarke said the city already hedges about 80% of its normal winter natural gas use.

Some Waukee residents on social media raised concerns about price gouging. The Iowa attorney general’s consumer advocate for utilities has received about six complaints from state residents concerning heating bills.

Nationally, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said that it’s investigating possible manipulation in natural gas and electricity markets.

Residents in Texas, millions of whom lost power for days during the cold snap, report heating bills for February reaching thousands of dollars.

Clarke said that of the extra $50,000 the city is providing to help Waukee residents struggling with the higher bills, $15,000 will go to families that qualify for the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program, a federal initiative that the state administers through local community action groups. The other $35,000 will go to Waukee Area Christian Services, a nonprofit ministry supported by Waukee-area churches. The group provides food, medical services and other aid to low-income families.

That’s in addition to $50,000 the council provided last summer to help residents who are having trouble paying rent and utility costs during the coronavirus public health emergency.

So far, the city has received about 600 calls from residents expressing concern about the size of their bills or set up budget billing, Clarke said. Altogether, the city has about 8,000 utility customers.

Gamble said he’ll bite the bullet and pay the bill without trying to spread it across several months. That’s another thing he feels lucky about: having the resources to cope with the unexpected cost.

“When I saw the bill Friday, it was like, holy cow,” he said. “But one of my first thoughts was that there are a lot of people that can’t afford this.

“It really makes you wonder about the future,” Gamble said. “It’s not going to be the last major cold snap we have. We live in Iowa.”

People brave the sub-zero temperatures on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in Des Moines, IA. The stretch of arctic cold is expected to last through the weekend according to the National Weather Service in Johnston.