Tuesday, February 21, 2006

CITY BEAT: Utility Bill Sudoku

Comparing bills in Memphis and Nashville; Redbirds lawsuit hits Circuit Court.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 21, 2006 at 4:00 AM

The Flyer doesn't have Sudoku, the popular Japanese puzzle. When we want to torture our brains and chew up pencils, we compare utility bills.

Calculators ready? Relax, if a liberal arts graduate can do it, so can you.

Nashville gets its natural gas from Nashville Gas via Piedmont Natural Gas, based in Charlotte, N.C. Memphis, of course, has Memphis Light, Gas and Water.

In January, Piedmont gave its Nashville gas customers a 36 percent price cut on top of a 15 percent cut approved by state regulators two weeks earlier.

"With the recent sharp decline in wholesale gas prices, it is only appropriate that customer bills reflect these significantly lower wholesale costs," said Piedmont CEO Thomas Skains in a January 17, 2006, press release.

The wholesale price of natural gas, according to recent reports in The Wall Street Journal, has fallen from $15.40 per million BTUs in December to $7.48 per million BTUs in February -- a 51 percent decline.

Piedmont measures gas usage in therms and dekatherms (10 therms). MLGW bills measure usage in "ccf," or hundreds of cubic feet. A "ccf" is not exactly equal to a therm, but it's close. The conversion factor used by the industry is 1.04 (100 ccf equals 104 therms).

A residential bill sent out by MLGW last week shows gas usage of 146 ccf at a cost of $201, including the purchased gas adjustment of .611700/ccf, which was down 9 percent from .6749000/ccf the previous month. It would be less confusing if MLGW left out the seven decimal places, rounded this off to 61 cents, and simply gave us the all-inclusive unit cost in dollars and cents, but we'll do it instead: $1.38/ccf.

Piedmont charges Nashville gas customers $1.08/therm.

The Memphian who uses 100 ccf pays $138. The Nashvillian who uses 104 therms pays $112. In this winter of our discontent, Nashville's gas rate is 19 percent lower.

Anyone who has driven a car in Canada or Europe knows how confounding it can be to convert the cost of a liter of gasoline to the more familiar cost per gallon. This is what consumers and reporters have to do in order to compare natural gas rates. If utility companies standardized their unit costs the way gas stations do and made their bills clearer, the price differential for natural gas would be as plain as the price at the pump. A 19 percent differential, for example, means gasoline selling for $2 a gallon versus $1.62 a gallon. How many gas stations could stay in business if they're 19 percent higher than the guy down the street?

   One year and a day after the death of Memphis businessman Willard Sparks, his estate filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court against Dean and Kristi Jernigan and Blues City Baseball, Inc., which operates AutoZone Park for the Memphis Redbirds Foundation.

Sparks, who died of cancer on January 30, 2005, was business partners with Dean Jernigan in Storage USA and the Redbirds. His widow, Rita Sparks, is president of the nonprofit Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation. Executors of the Sparks estate are his sons Brian Sparks and Robert Sparks along with David M. Johnson.

The lawsuit says that in order to fund its operations, Blues City Baseball borrowed $2.1 million from Trust One Bank in 2003. The note was guaranteed by Willard Sparks and the Jernigans. On May 6, 2005, Trust One Bank filed a claim against the Sparks estate demanding payment of the loan in full. On January 19, 2006, an order in favor of  Trust One Bank was entered in Probate Court for $1,807,372. The lawsuit seeks a prorated portion of that from the Jernigans.

The Jernigans were the driving force behind building AutoZone Park and bringing the AAA St. Louis Cardinals affiliate to Memphis. The Redbirds have been one of the top two teams in minor-league attendance since coming to AutoZone Park. The stadium was financed with $72 million in bonds, with the public investment limited to about $8.5 million.

According to its 2004 tax form, the Memphis Redbirds Foundation had $18,305,962 in revenue, $20,256,941 in expenses, and a deficit of $1,950,979. 

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