By Kelsy Mittauer | CBS 11 News Special Projects ProducerBy Cristin Severance

NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Homeowners across North Texas say their recent natural gas bills have spiked even though their usage has remained the same, or even decreased. Viewers from Carrollton, Dallas, Hurst, Frisco and other cities reached out to Consumer Justice after receiving bills ranging from $300-$600 or more.

In every case, the customers say they reached out to Atmos and were told January and February were colder than normal, or they used more natural gas than they realized. Cristin Severance met with a group of North Oak Cliff residents who all believe their bills are wrong.

John Dennis says he keeps it cool in his home, even in the winter. “At night we start out at 68, then after [wife Lisa] goes to sleep I turn it down to 65.” The couple say it’s just the two of them, and they don’t cook that much, so a $406 Atmos bill makes no sense.

Jovita Reyes is in the same situation. She says three people live in her home and she cooks just once a day. Even so, her last two bills were $359 and $290.

Greg Fieser tracks all of his utilities and keeps charts on his usage and the bills. He says for the past several years, his highest winter gas bills were around $85. In January his bill was close to $130. “I thought, I need to watch that, I’m going to dial back the thermostat a bit, to not have a reoccurence. My February bill was even higher.” Fieser says his bill showed his meter had been read. “They said my meter reading was 246. I read 204 — six days after [receiving] the bill.”

METER READING VS. ESTIMATION

Wendy Cassidy says her bills were averaging around $50 per month until January and February of this year. “It went up to $90 — then it went up to $200.” Her bills showed usage was the highest it had been since 2015. Cassidy says she was concerned there was a gas leak, so she called Atmos. “They said that they had estimated it before, and that’s why it was so low.”

George and Shelagh Cacioppo are facing the same issue in Carrollton. Their February bill was $109. March’s bill was $636. Shelagh says when she called Atmos, she was told her bill had been estimated since November. “They tried to tell me it was like a catch-up from the previous months.”

In Hurst, Phil Dunlop’s bill quadrupled from one month to the next. “It’s an approach of ‘we’re right, you’re wrong, shut up and pay the bill.'”

atmosphildunlop Consumer Justice Looks Into Skyrocketing Atmos Bills

Many of the customers we interviewed say estimation is part of the problem. “What are you doing with our money? Why don’t you hire more meter readers?” asked John Dennis. Fieser agrees. “You shouldn’t have to [read your meter every month]. That’s what you’re paying Atmos to do.”

According to Atmos’s website, the company reads meters monthly. The statement goes on to say “a monthly meter reading provides accurate data, ensuring that customers are only paying for the natural gas they use, not an estimated amount. In the event that the meter is not read, the customer will receive a bill that is calculated by considering past usage and adjusting it for that month’s weather conditions. If this bill is incorrect, any over- or under-charge will be corrected the following month That way, you will still be billed only for the gas you actually use.”

However, Atmos officials admit that customers’ meters are not read every month. A company spokesman told Consumer Justice that state law requires meters to be read once every six months, but Atmos’s “practice” is not to estimate more than two consecutive months.

Lisa Campbell says in 25 years at her home, she’s rarely had a bill for more than $100. In February her bill was $370. “I had a wonderful technician come out and tell me yeah, they estimate. Every other month.” Campbell says that’s not good enough. “If I were to do my job as an estimate I’d be fired! I think Atmos should be fired.”

atmosmeter Consumer Justice Looks Into Skyrocketing Atmos Bills

In each customer’s case, Atmos gave the same reasons for the sudden spike: colder weather and/or higher usage. Atmos told Consumer Justice the same thing.

“We’re living in a time and in a state that isn’t very responsive to consumer issues,” said Geoffrey Gay. Gay is an attorney for the Atmos Steering Committee. He negotiates with Atmos on behalf of 150 cities across Texas and he says bills are going up because rates have gone up almost every year. Atmos regularly requests to charge customers more to cover the costs of improvements. “When you’re spending $300 million annually to remove pipes [and] upgrade the system,” said Gay, “they can recover — almost immediately — all of those costs.”

That’s exactly why Atmos is asking to raise rates right now for 450 cities across Texas. The company filed paperwork on April 3rd documenting the costs of improvements made last year. If the cities say no to the rate increase, Atmos can (and likely will) appeal the decision to the Railroad Commission.

commissioners railroad Consumer Justice Looks Into Skyrocketing Atmos Bills

(photos courtesy of: rc.state.tx.us/about-us/commissioners)

The Railroad Commission is made up of three people elected to six-year terms. Contrary to its name, the agency has nothing to do with railroads. It regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas, while all other utilities are handled by the Public Utility Commission.

“The money that finances the folks who run for the commission generally comes from the industry,” said Gay. That means in many instances, commissioners are hearing cases involving their campaign donors. A report by Texans for Public Justice, a non-profit organization, found that between 2010 and 2016, commissioners Christi Craddick, Ryan Sitton, and then-commissioner David Porter took tens of thousands of dollars from oil and gas groups with utility rate cases before the agency. All of it is legal, and all of the commissioners have previously denied allegations that their votes could be swayed by campaign contributions. We asked Craddick, Sitton, and Wayne Christian to give statements in response to this story; none replied to our requests for comment.

Meanwhile, gas bills are bigger than ever. Gay says in the last ten years, the Railroad Commission has granted all of Atmos’s requests for rate increases. And he says base rates for residential customers have gone up more than 70 percent over the past 12 years. “The Railroad Commission awards this company a very high rate of return on equity,” said Gay. “Higher than I think is appropriate.”

Customers say they just want to pay for what they’ve used. “If I crank it up to 80 degrees, I deserve a $600 bill,” said John Dennis. “But when I keep it at 65, I want a $150, $180 gas bill.”

If you believe your reading is wrong, you should read it yourself and call Atmos at 888-286-6700 to request a reading.

You can also file a complaint with the Railroad Commission online or by calling the Office of Public Assistance at 877-228-5740, option 5.

Search the Texas Ethics Commission database for campaign contributions for Railroad Commissioners or any state candidate.

Here is the full statement sent to us by Atmos Energy Media.

In Texas, per the rules of service, estimated bills may be submitted provided that an actual meter reading is taken at least every six months. Atmos Energy’s practice is not to estimate more than two consecutive months. We would like to see the bill you reference that may have been estimated four consecutive months to see if there were extenuating circumstances- will you please forward it to us?

Estimation is not a seasonal practice, but one we utilize year round. Having said that, we do not have less meter readers employed now than we have in the past. Estimating is one of the many ways that we can help keep customers’ bills lower by minimizing the labor associated with reading meters. It also allows meter readers, on a rotating basis, to cross-train and work on construction projects. There is never a month that all of our customer’s bills are estimated.

Estimated reading can be higher or lower than actual usage. Bills self-correct when the meter is read, ensuring a customer never pays for more natural gas than actually used. If the bill is estimated higher than actual usage, we apply the difference to the next bill as a credit. However, we will issue a refund if requested by a customer.

If a customer has a question about the accuracy of their bill, we ask that they please call us immediately at 888-286-6700. If the customer isn’t satisfied with the agent’s explanation of their bill, they can ask to speak to a supervisor. Customers also can request that we send a technician to read their meter and confirm their actual consumption. For even faster results, they may take a picture of the meter and submit it to us at our website through our Account Center, and we can review the bill that way.