The Long Beach City Council is convening a special meeting Wednesday, where it will discuss creating an assistance fund for families and seniors who are struggling to pay their utility bills after a dramatic spike in the cost of natural gas in the region caused monthly bills to swell by hundreds of dollars.

Mayor Rex Richardson announced on Monday that he was calling for the special meeting, which will be held in a hybrid format, meaning people can participate from home rather than having to be present at City Hall if they want to give public comment.

A spokesperson for the Long Beach Utilities Department said the money would come from the city’s general fund, but it’s unclear how much will be allocated. Richardson and his staff were not immediately available for comment.

Natural gas prices in the region have skyrocketed since the first of the year, when the price of gas rose from $1.42 per therm in December to $3.81 per therm in January.

The cost of natural gas in January 2022, by comparison, was just under $1 per therm. The result of the spike has been hundreds of dollars tacked onto the average household’s bill, even if residents use the same or less natural gas than the previous January.

The Utilities Department estimated that the average single-family household would see an increase of about $186 to the gas portion of their city utilities bill, which also includes water, sewer and trash services.

Utilities Department officials say that the cost of natural gas seems to be trending down, thanks to a variety of factors. Pipelines that were being maintained are being fixed, natural gas that was being used to generate electricity because the drought had affected the state’s hydroelectricity production is no longer needed, and a warmer-than-normal winter on the East Coast is stymying demand.

Natural gas prices are set at the first of the month, which means Long Beach residents could soon be paying less for natural gas, but because the department has several different billing cycles, large bills could continue to be received into February for gas that was used in January.

Chris Garner, the Utilities Department’s general manager, told the City Council this month that the department would be looking into “price hedging” once the market returns to normal conditions. The practice can create more predictable pricing for the commodity and potentially prevent winter surges in customers’ bills, Garner said.

In addition to the special City Council meeting, the Utilities Commission is meeting Thursday morning, where it will receive a report on options for the department to implement price hedging in the future, according to the commission’s agenda.

A number of payment plans are offered by the department, including the ability for customers to space out the large bills incurred over the past few months over the next three years. The Long Beach Utilities Department also offers a level-pay plan that charges customers the same amount every month based on historical usage and the projected future rate of natural gas.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more information from the Long Beach Utilities Department.

Natural gas prices show signs of decline, but officials still caution customers to expect big bills

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.