Marilyn H. sensed that her gas bill would be high this month, so she took precautions. She shoved a rug into the bottom of her front door where the draft comes in because she needs new weatherstripping, she wears big sweaters and uses an electric throw, which her cat, a Siamese mix named Tilly, has claimed as her own.
Still, her bill utility bill was $334 in January, more than triple that of a normal month. About 81% of the bill was for natural gas.
“I was kind of braced for it,” said Marilyn, who declined to use her last name, as she was a recent victim of identity theft. “I was surprised on one hand that it wasn’t going to be more than that based on the scuttlebutt on Nextdoor.”
Marilyn, who lives in North Long Beach, and was raised by German immigrants in the Midwest, said she’s not a rich person, but she won’t be seeking a payment plan or other assistance to pay the bill.
Her upbringing instilled a sense of pride in paying bills on time, and this month she’ll make do with less to pay her utility bill.
“You either make more money or cut back,” she said. “I’m going to pay my bill. I don’t want to take money out of savings to pay utilities, and I’m not all the way back from the pandemic. I’ll just spend less money.”
Marilyn’s experience is not unique. She’s one of tens of thousands of customers in the Long Beach utility service area, which includes Signal Hill, that saw large increases in their monthly bills over the past few months, as the price of natural gas increased by nearly fivefold since November 2022.
Posts on social media sites like Nextdoor reported utility bills, which include charges for water, sewer, trash and natural gas, that approached $1,000 in some instances, or twice that for businesses, when their normal monthly costs were a fraction. The biggest driver in most cases was the cost of natural gas.
Long Beach utility officials set the cost of natural gas that is charged to customers based on the price the department pays for the commodity, which is determined on the first day of every month.
February brought encouraging news with a 66% decrease in the cost of gas, which should shed hundreds of dollars off of most users’ bills, but the financial damage done in December in January has some households wondering how they’ll be able to pay.
Monica O’Brien said her family would be putting off some home repairs so they can weather the bill, which is about $125 more than it typically is. O’Brien said the bill could have been worse, but the family’s heater was down for the first week of January, and the weeks of rain allowed her to turn off the sprinklers for nearly a month.
The leaky fixture in their restroom will have to wait to be fixed, O’Brien said, noting that she just paid a $1,400 down payment to an orthodontist for both of her kids to get braces.
“It’s kind of a double-punch, if you will,” O’Brien said. “It probably wouldn’t hurt as much if we didn’t have to pay for that.”
There has been some angst about the notification timeline of the high gas prices—though the Utilities Department’s ability to notify customers any earlier than it did was complicated by the fact that the department didn’t technically exist until mid-December.
Prior to that point, Long Beach had separate operations managing its water and gas utilities. Voters approved a merger of the two, thus creating the Utilities Department, in the November election, the results of which weren’t certified until Dec. 5.
The price of natural gas made its first dramatic jump on Dec. 1.
The first notice of potentially high bills went out about a month later.
While the cost of gas was posted on a city website before the merger, the gas utility did not have a dedicated public communications team like the Utilities Department has, explained Lauren Howland, a spokesperson for the Utilities Department.
Howland noted that gas pricing had been relatively calm for two decades, with the last crisis for the utility being in 2002 when sky-high gas rates led to a $38 million lawsuit being filed against the city by a community group seeking refunds.
“We totally get that people wish they knew about the increases earlier and had more time to prepare,” Howland said.
More transparency was one of the arguments in favor of merging all utility operations under one department, and the gas utility is now managed by the same commission that sets water and sewer rates in public meetings. The gas utility did not have public meetings prior to the merger.
The commission is expected to call a special meeting in the next few weeks to establish a relief fund that could offer $1.5 million or more in diverted utility taxes to help low-income households pay their high gas costs.
Howland said the department is working to let people know that they have payment options, like splitting the recent bills over a 36-month period, and that some households qualify for discounted rates.
People with certain medical conditions can qualify for more gas usage before moving up to a more expensive tier, and low-income seniors ($36,620 for a household of up to two) can get a 20% discount.
At the request of the City Council, Howland said the department will likely retroactively apply those discounts to new seniors who sign up for the program.
Not everyone, though, saw huge increases, and Richard Daksam was one of those who were spared—but only because he moved out of his large El Dorado Estates home three years ago and now lives in a condo in Signal Hill.
Daksam said his bill did “spike” from about $12 to $19.76 last month.
“Thank god,” Daksam said after seeing his bill.
But then he called his mother in Palm Springs who lives on social security and saw her bill quadruple. He helped pay her bill but said downsizing, if possible, is something people should consider if they can.
“We are so fortunate because our bills were already getting high,” Daksam said, adding that he was paying nearly $1,000 per month for utilities before moving. “I don’t know what we would have done if we had that huge 3,000-square-foot house.”
Marilyn, meanwhile, sat at a patio table outside of her pistachio-colored home on Friday, where she gets her source of heat during the day now that she’s decided to completely shut off her heater to avoid incurring even more high gas charges. She paid her bill in full, she said, but recognizes that there are others who are going to suffer more from the recent bills.
“Some people can’t pay, and there need to be options for them,” she said.
A link to payment options and other assistance from the Long Beach Utilities Department can be found here.