Changes coming for rural gas customers
A change is coming in the way Perham’s rural gas customers are serviced and billed.
Possibly as soon as this winter, but more likely not until the following year, the city’s public works department will begin conducting monthly readings for rural customers, as they do for those who live in town.
Currently, Perham Natural Gas customers who live outside city limits are asked to read their meters themselves for nine months out of the year. It is not cost effective for city employees to visit those rural properties every month, city leaders say, and many meters are not easily accessible in the winter.
More often than not, rural customers do not submit their own meter reads, and instead rely on computerized cost estimates until Perham Natural Gas conducts one of its three yearly manual reads. The estimates are based off of gas prices from the prior year, which, since prices fluctuate, can result in inaccurate billing.
It’s not uncommon for customers to find themselves with a big bill to pay at the end of winter, or for the city to end up issuing credits at the end of summer, to make up for misreads or off estimates.
But some new equipment will change all that.
At a meeting last week, Perham city councilors agreed to the purchase of gas radio read meters for the public works department. The radio read meters will make it possible for Perham Natural Gas workers to read rural meters on a monthly basis, as the meters can be easily read from the road, using a signal.
The upgrade will allow for more accurate utility billing, ensuring that customers are being billed the appropriate monthly gas rate for their actual gas used within each month. It will save customers some confusion about their bills, and it will help city staff create more accurate monthly financial statements.
“This is really a win-win situation for both parties,” said councilor Fred Lehmkuhl.
“It’s a convenience for customers, because they no longer have to read their own meters and will get more accurate bills,” said City Manager Kelcey Klemm, adding that, however, “It can take time to put them (the new meters) in, and there is an expense.”
In a memo to councilors, Perham Finance Officer Patti Stokke said the cost of installing the radio read meters will be about $136,000.
This will ultimately be paid for by rural gas customers, who will see a $2 per month increase in their base charge. Rural customers currently pay $12 per month for their gas base rate; this increase will bring that up to $14 per month. This should pay off the cost of the meters and their installation within five years.
The increase will not affect customers in town.
“This seems fair for everybody,” said councilor James Johnson.
The radio read meters are in high demand, Public Works Director Merle Meece said, with orders taking about 20 weeks to be fulfilled, meaning it could be awhile before the equipment is delivered and installed.
The city’s plan is to install the new meters for rural customers on the south side of Highway 10 first, which is where the majority of its 2,000 rural customers reside, and then add the north side at an unspecified later date.