BY RANDALL RYTI
Los Alamos County Council Chair
COVID Update. Since the January 26 Council meeting I have asked that Manager Burgess arrange for Emergency Manager Beverley Simpson to present a report to Council at the beginning of each Council Meeting. Ms. Simpson has also made these reports available on the Los Alamos County pandemic web page. These reports will continue so that Council and the public can be informed on trends and progress in cases and vaccinations.
We have good news on both the number of cases and the number of vaccine doses available in Los Alamos County. The cases have been low enough to allow the County to be at the Turquoise level, which allows our businesses to be open and the schools being able to plan for in-person learning. I’m writing this column before the next two week update is posted on March 24, I hope that this report is also favorable and we can continue maintain low cases while restrictions loosen.
We have the highest rate of vaccine registration in New Mexico (over 76% of people 16 years and older are registered). Our vaccination rate is currently at 41% with at least a first dose. I cannot thank enough all of the people and organizations that have made this possible. Special thanks goes to Nambe Drug, who have given 3509 of the 7664 doses for Los Alamos County clinics (as of March 16).
Gas Rate Increase. I want to alert Los Alamos residents and businesses that you will see an escalation in the cost of natural gas on your utility bill. The current March rate of $0.55 per therm will increase in April and for the next six to eight months to $1.22 per therm. The reason for this increase dates back to the arctic cold snap the week of February 14, 2021. Natural gas production for Los Alamos was not threatened but unfortunately the spot prices for natural gas increased dramatically due to a decrease in production in Texas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas production in Texas fell by almost 45 percent.
For the month of February 2021 Department of Public Utilities (DPU) spent over $2.2 million to supply natural gas to Los Alamos while the typical cost in February fluctuates between $200,000 and $400,000 with a budgeted amount of $382,802. As with all utility organizations, DPU recoups these expenses through commodity rates.
Eight years ago, the Board of Public Utilities and the County Council adopted an ordinance to change the natural gas rate structure from a fixed rate per therm to a “pass-through” rate structure. Prior to 2013 DPU charged a single fixed price per therm that included DPU’s: 1) estimated cost of gas, 2) distribution expenses and 3) collection of a fee to maintain a rate stabilization fund to absorb volatile gas prices. The rate stabilization fund was necessary because DPU lacked the flexibility to react to the fluctuating market immediately. Changing a rate requires the publication of the rate change and two public hearings, stretching the process out over two to three months.
In contrast the pass-through rate allows the DPU to be flexible to the market. Distribution expenses are charged separately as a fixed rate per therm at $0.23 and DPU’s actual cost of gas is passed through directly to customers, at a rate not to exceed $0.99 per therm. Further, with this rate structure, cost fluctuations are recovered in near real time, eliminating the need for DPU to collect from its customers an additional fee to maintain a large rate stabilization fund.
This flexibility has its benefits in more immediately passing along gas commodity price savings to DPU customers. In the case of this commodity price increase, the DPU was able to schedule the increase during a period of lower gas utilization and therefore spreading out the increase over a longer period of time.
To predict how this change might affect you or your organization on future bills, look at the number of therms used last year during this time and multiply that by $1.22; this, plus the monthly service fee will help you determine what to expect. Of course, your actual bill will be based on the total therms used for that month. For example, a residential customer who uses 70 therms in April will see a total gas bill of $94.90 ($1.22 x 70 therms totals $85.40, plus the $9.50 monthly service fee equals $94.90). A commercial customer who uses 150 therms in April will see a total gas bill of $211.50 (x $1.22 x 150 therms totals $183.00, plus the $28.50 monthly service fee equals $211.50.
DPU customers can view past utility bills online by registering on the department’s Utilities Self-Service portal at https://ladpu.com/Utilities-Portal.
DPU suggest that customers who are on Budget Billing may want to contact the department to discuss options to adjust their budget billing amount now, rather than waiting until the annual settlement. Customers may contact the Customer Care Center at 505-662-8333 or CustomerCare@lacnm.us and staff will answer questions or redirect their call as necessary.
Upcoming Agenda Items. Council has two meetings scheduled before the budget sessions start on April 19. On March 30 we are scheduled to consider the racial equity and inclusivity task force charter (and appointments if the charter approved), appointments to Lodgers’ Tax Advisory Board and Health Council, a presentation on wild land fire preparations, along with some other items scheduled for the consent agenda. At the April 6 meeting we are scheduled to have a discussion of the plans to obtain information for the broadband priority, a presentation by Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Agency, an overview of the 2021 State Legislative Session from Representative Chandler and the County Lobbyist Mr. Scott Scanland, also along with items scheduled for the consent agenda.
If you have any comments or questions about these items or other County matters, please reach out to me or any member of Council. You can email the entire Council at ~CountyCouncil@lacnm.us.