My comments about the Washington Gas Light Company's new system charge were not appreciated by most District Liners.And that's putting it mildly.
"What I would like to know," wrote one irate woman, "is how much Gas Company stock is in the portfolios of the Public Service Commission members, and how much you own. I am shocked that you would defend such an outrageous ripoff."
If any commisioner owns utility stock, he is guilty of a clearcut conflict of interest. However, until somebody can offer proof that such a conflict exists, let's not get carried away.
And just for the record, let me add that I own co stock in any utility, nor have I ever owned such stock. My wife owns stock in an Ohio utility. It was bought with $3,500 of her own money, contrary to my advice.
One reader who owns stock in the Gas Company was the only correspondent who approved of what I wrote. His point was: "The company is entitled to earn a limited profit on its investment, not only to reward those who invested but to attract the new capital that utilities constantly require to build the additional facilities that future generations will need. What difference does it make whether they earn their profit from higher rates or from somewhat lower rates plus a system charge? Whatever the rate schedule, the PSC will always see to it that a utility doesn't earn too much."
Eighteen readers said it made a big difference to them. Most of them indicated that they are living on modest incomes, and had been forced to economize by steadily rising prices. They felt they were being unjustly penalized by the system charge, and they especially resented being forced to pay for something they hadn't used.
One of the few critics who didn't express anger or call the system charge a ripoff was Herbert Pennock of Rockville. His low-key reaction to my column went this way: "I agree with you that the concept of a basic monthly charge seems reasonable. In fact, the Gas Company has had such a charge for a long time.
"Under the old rate structure, there was a minimum charge of $2.50 per month, which also included 5 therms. Customers paid the $2.50 whether they used 5 therms or 0 therms.
"Because the average home uses at least 5 therms a month, the new system charge really just increased that minimum to something over $9 (the $8 charge plus 5 therms at $0.2073 plus PGA).
"What has been obscured in the fuss over the system charge is that the rate structure revisions last fall have resulted in a huge increase in the amount being charged for gas. In my case, the rise will amount to a 50 per cent increase.
"I live alone, have extra insulation, keep the thermostat low in the winter, and have made adjustments to the furnace for greater efficiency. This means I probably use less gas than most of my neighbours in this townhouse group.
"Therefore, because of the huge percentage increase in the basic charge (more than 250 per cent), the percentage increase in my annual gas bill is likely to be higher than for others; and even for somebody who uses more gas, the percentage increase will be quite high.
"It really seems that the Gas Company realized that conservation will mean that sales of gas will not increase, and may even decrease, and that this new rate structure was designed to assure that the company's profits will not decline in the future."
Perhaps so. But what's the alternative to keeping the Gas Company - or any other utility - solvent? After reading those 18 letters of protest from people who live on modest incomes, I am less inclined to support the concept of a system charge. I think I'd rather pay somewhat more for the gas I actually use and not saddle low-income householders with a charge for something they didn't use.