Defend democracy in the South.

As consumers ponder reports that Big Energy may be "forced" to drive up heating costs this winter, here's a story of what one utility did with the money another time they jacked up prices. From yesterday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Four years ago, as Georgia home heating costs soared, gas customers paid Atlanta Gas Light Co. thousands of dollars to throw a barbecue.

The company also charged customers for a canal cruise and cookout in Augusta, a quail hunt at Carrollton's Hog Liver Shooting Preserve, parties and gifts --- part of hundreds of thousands of dollars in entertainment and other unusual expenses that ended up on gas customers' bills from 2000 to 2003.

AGL's customers paid $1,200 for a man to have lunch with the mayor of Macon. They paid $200 an hour for an employee's time working on cards for Christmas baskets, writing letters and distributing news articles. They paid $50 an hour --- and sometimes $75 --- for workers to read the newspaper and monitor the Internet.

The money came from a fee, or "rider," on customers' bills intended to pay the costs of cleaning up toxic coal tar. The entertainment and other expenses were part of a $2.3 million campaign, run by an AGL subcontractor, to keep the public informed about the project, which was mandated by environmental regulators more than a decade ago.

AGL says the community relations campaign was essential to explain the purpose of environmental work, quell rumors and stave off lawsuits.

Now, state utility regulators are taking a second look at the charges.

I would hope so.

Chris Kromm

Chris Kromm chriskromm

Chris Kromm is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of the Institute's online magazine, Facing South.

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