COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Columbia Gas has applied to increase its prices for customers using natural gas, but a consumer advocacy office is fighting the change.

The natural gas provider is in the thick of a case with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio over whether it can charge customers more. In its most recent development, the year-long case saw a public hearing Thursday night at the Whetstone Park Shelter House in Columbus. A transcript for that hearing was not immediately available, but in the previous June 1 hearing, only one person showed up for public comment.

Because it is a public utility serving over 1.4 million customers in the state, Columbia Gas had to apply with PUCO in the summer of 2021 to raise its rates. Records show the Ohio Consumers' Counsel filed to intervene shortly after. Columbia Gas has proposed a $212 million rate increase, according to the OCC. The company hasn't changed rates since 2007, and it cited an income shortfall in application documents as its reason for increasing them now.

"The current rates are projected to provide a 2.94% rate of return for the test period. … This is substantially below the 8.12% rate of return found reasonable for Columbia by the Commission in Columbia’s last base rate proceeding," attorneys for the gas company wrote in the application. "Based upon three months of actual data and nine months of estimated data, Columbia has a revenue deficiency of $221.4 million."

The company claimed in application documents that its proposal would give it a 7.85% rate of return. It also mentions that the company's fixed distribution rate -- what customers pay per month before being billed for actual gas usage -- would effectively triple.

"The proposed rates would, if approved, represent a 27.07% increase to total operating revenues," Columbia Gas wrote. "Likewise, if the Commission approved Columbia’s new proposed base rate … Columbia’s base rates would increase from $16.75 to $46.31."

The OCC read further into the company's proposal and said the price for Ohioans would get even steeper over time.

"Columbia proposes that in five years residential consumers could be paying up to $80 per month in fixed charges, before they use even a single unit of natural gas," the OCC wrote. "Higher fixed charges favor utilities by guaranteeing their revenues, at the expense of consumers' ability to lower their bills by reducing usage."

While not objecting to letting Columbia Gas increase its charges to customers, the OCC said the utility provider is asking for dramatically more than it should get, filing objections in the case.

"The PUCO should deny $202 million of Columbia’s $212 million rate increase request," the OCC wrote.

PUCO released findings from its investigation into the request for a rate increase. While not reflecting how it will rule, it picked apart some operating costs claimed by Columbia Gas. This included $304,240 for a workout facility, aerobic rooms and locker rooms in the company's headquarters, as well as $16 million in distribution and general plant costs that the company did not provide "adequate invoices" for.

On another page, investigators noted Columbia Gas' operating costs included $83,021 spent on five thermal cameras to take employees' temperatures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Staff finds this purchase to be significantly excessive as more inexpensive options, such as hand-held thermometers, were available," PUCO investigators wrote.

PUCO will decide whether it will let Columbia Gas raise its rates, if at all, after taking public input and hearing from the groups involved in the case. Other groups have periodically involved themselves in the case, including the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Citizens' Utility Board of Ohio. According to the OCC's website, PUCO is weighing a rate increase much lower for Columbia Gas between $35 million and $58 million.

One more public hearing will take place in the city council chambers at Zanesville City Hall on Wednesday at 6 p.m., according to the OCC. For anyone interested in submitting a public comment on the Columbia Gas's rate increase case, click here to file one on PUCO's website.