10/2/03 9:45 AM Inches: 7.9 REGULAR BC-NV-SouthwestGas-Rate Bjt 10-02 0338

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Southwest Gas Corp. customers in and around Las Vegas could see a 30 percent gas rate increase next year if state regulators approve monthly adjustments, far higher than the utility reported, the state consumer advocate said.

Tim Hay on Wednesday cited testimony from Phil Williamson, an economist with the Bureau of Consumer Protection, who based his report on Southwest Gas projections from July.

For northern Nevada, Williamson said rates would increase 20 percent over the next year, not decrease as the gas company said.

Hay's comments came during Public Utilities Commission hearings on Southwest Gas' rate proposal. Hearings also were scheduled Thursday and Friday.

Utility spokesman Roger Buehrer dismissed Hay's estimates, saying the company's projections have changed since July. He called projections "a moving target" that change every month.

Southwest Gas also is seeking to change the way it recovers its fuel costs by switching from yearly to monthly adjustments. The company said it wants to raise rates 11.8 percent Dec. 1, the first month after rates are reset.

The company doesn't produce gas, but buys fuel and pipes it to customers around Nevada. It currently files annual rate cases to recover its costs, but it is proposing to switch to monthly adjustments.

If the Public Utilities Commission agrees, the gas utility wants to start adjusting rates monthly to avoid large increases at the end of the year.

Hay contended that Southwest Gas should have disclosed projections over the entire year, and said letting the company change rates monthly would give the state less regulatory control.

Ed Gieskeking, Southwest Gas director of pricing and tariffs, said the Nevada PUC would be able to review purchases at the end of the year and order refunds if purchases were found to be imprudent.


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