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Farrell resident Lila Savage testifies against a proposed natural gas rate hike Tuesday during a state Public Utility Commission hearing held at the Farrell city building.

Lila Savage is a 70-year-old Farrell resident with leukemia and high blood pressure. She lives on a fixed income and says she can’t afford higher natural gas bills.

“We don’t know what to do, we need help,” Ms. Savage testified Tuesday during a state Public Utility Commission hearing at the Farrell city building.

Her sentiment was typical of those expressed during the two-hour hearing, held to discuss National Fuel Gas Distribution Co.’s proposed 6.1 percent rate hike. About 100 people attended the hearing and more than 30 provided testimony similar to Ms. Savage’s.

Under the proposal, the annual bill for the average NFG residential customer would increase by about $146, from $1,728 to $1,874. The proposal includes a $10-per-customer annual increase in the company’s base charge.

“You don’t really need all that money,” she said to the utility’s attorney.

“Have you ever had your gas cut off?” Ms. Savage asked Anthony Kennedy, the attorney representing National Fuel at the hearing. “Well I have.”

The $75 reconnection fee the company charges is prohibitive for those who’ve fallen behind on their bills, something that will happen more if the hike is approved.

“If I could get me a tent, I’d go live in a tent,” she said.

Stoneboro resident Ron Darogy came to the hearing to testify on behalf of his 79-year-old mother.

She keeps her thermostat at 68 degrees because of high bills and can’t afford to pay more, he said.

Farrell resident Anthony Denoi was the first person at the hearing to mention another aspect of National Fuel’s energy efficient rider proposal that would convert some of the gas bill based on consumption into a fixed amount — meaning that some who conserve to lower their bills may pay more than they actually use.

“I disagree with that. I think that’s highway robbery,” Denoi said.

“Companies like National Fuel are totally out of control,” said another Farrell resident, Dennis DeMartiniz.

In the summer, the only gas he uses is for his water heater, and over four years his monthly bills have skyrocketed from $8 a month to $35 a month.

“The people in this community, I’m sorry, they just need a break,” DeMartiniz said. “They can’t do it anymore.”

Hermitage resident Bruce Kaiser decried the rider as “almost un-American.”

“If we improve energy efficiency, we’ll be penalized for it? I’m not sure this is the best way,” he said.

Something’s “got to give,” Sharon resident Sarah Pinson said.

“There’s got to be something we can do in this country,” Ms. Pinson said.

Sometimes she chooses between paying her gas bill or filling her prescriptions, she said.

Susan Kirsch of Farrell testified as an advocate for low-income people who would be hurt by the hike.

She said one couple she knows take turns taking their blood pressure medication, alternating days, to save money.

“What is more important, medicine or utilities?” Mrs. Kirsch asked. “No one should have to answer that question.”

Administrative Law Judges John H. Corbett Jr. and Mark A. Hoyer conducted the hearing, the third one held Tuesday. Earlier in the day, hearings were held in Erie and Meadville. Another is scheduled for today in Franklin.

NFG serves about 210,000 customers in northwestern Pennsylvania, including Mercer County.

The PUC has until March 2 to make a decision.

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