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04-16-03: St. Marys voters to decide on gas program
The Daily Standard
    ST. MARYS - City voters will decide in the May 6 election whether they want the city and American Municipal Power of Ohio (AMP-Ohio) to launch an aggregation program that would try to secure lower natural gas prices for local customers.
    Gas aggregation was made legal in Ohio in 2001. A half dozen communities passed ballot issues in November 2002 and 13 more communities, including St. Marys, have aggregation issues on the ballot in May.
    Only voters within the St. Marys city limits will be eligible to vote and participate in the program. In cities where aggregation has already been approved, the ballot issues passed with anywhere from 79 percent to 89 percent of voters supporting the issue.
    If approved by voters, officials at AMPO, a for-profit division of AMP-Ohio formed specifically to pursue aggregation, would attempt to negotiate a natural gas supply contract for city customers. The belief is that by pooling customers together, the group can get a more competitive price.
    "You may or may not save a lot of money. It remains to be seen," said Bob Simmers, an AMPO official who presented information on aggregation to a handful of St. Marys residents Tuesday.
    Another informational session is scheduled for April 24 at 6 p.m. in the basement of the city utilities office.
    If voters give the go-ahead, city council members then will write an operational plan for the program and seek Public Utilities Commission of Ohio certification as a natural gas aggregator. Once that is done, AMPO will work toward a contract proposal. Ideally, AMPO will bring the city two or three different contract offers.
    "Just because you pass the ballot issue doesn't mean council has to proceed," Simmers said, noting that council would retain the right to reject any or all offers.
    If a contract is reached and approved by council, the opt-out time period would begin. That means existing Dominion East Ohio gas customers would be contacted to see if they want to be part of the aggregation program. Residents would have to fill out a card and return it by mail if they do not want to participate.
    "If you don't do anything, you will be assumed to be in the program," Simmer said.
    Supply contracts could be one or two years long and could offer fixed or variable rates, Simmers said. Customers who join the program and then want out before the contract expires would pay a $25 exit fee, fairly standard in the industry, Simmers said.
    It likely would be September before a new supply contract could be put in place, he said.
    Customers who have already switched suppliers under Ohio's Energy Choice program would not be automatically switched to the aggregate contract. Those customers could participate by getting out of their current contracts, though. Also ineligible are people who are not current with their Dominion payments and those who get state assistance for their gas bills.
    Additionally, only residential and small commercial customers would be switched to the program if it is approved. Larger customers could join the program on their own.
    If the ballot issue passes, two public hearings would be held during the planning phase of the program so that city residents become more familiar with how it works, Simmers said.
    Simmers said there are no drawbacks to supporting the issue. The worst-case scenario is that officials would be unable to negotiate a favorable contract and residents would stay with Dominion or the current suppliers, Simmers said.


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