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Proposed propane rate increase heats local business owners

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Centra Gas, Whistler’s major supplier of piped propane, is seeking approval from the British Columbia Utilities Commission to raise rates again, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2001.

The latest increase will be 20.5 per cent and that has a local restaurant owner hot under the collar.

"The major cost impact on our business is (propane) prices," said John Grills, owner of Zeuski’s Taverna and Thai One On restaurants. "We use a lot of it and now they are asking for even more."

Whistler customers have seen three other rate increases from Centra in the recent past, including a 19.3 per cent jump last November, a 16 per cent hike in August 2000 and another 17.2 increase in January 2000.

According to Centra, the rate increase for residential customers will be approximately $265 on their annual propane bills. The rate increase, however, will cost commercial customers even more.

"A 20 per cent increase is substantial," Grills said. "Between the two restaurants, that could be as much as $20,000 more than it cost us last year."

But another commercial customer said her business budgets for such rate increases. "It’s the cost of doing business," said Monica Hayes from the Westin Resort and Spa.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler, meanwhile, was caught off guard by the latest proposed increase. "We were unaware that it would be this much," said Lisa Landry, the RMOW’s manager of fiscal planning. "We did not budget for this."

The municipality uses propane to heat public buildings, such as the recreation centre.

According to Geoff Higgins, Centra’s manager of regulatory affairs, even with the rate increase, piped propane will still remain cheaper than bottled propane by 31 per cent.

The increase, said Higgins, is due to the rising cost of propane from suppliers and system improvements to meet growing customer demand.

Wholesale propane prices jumped by almost 50 per cent from November 2000 to January 2001, he said. Centra buys propane in bulk and then ships most of it to Whistler via railway tank cars.

The Victoria-based propane supplier also made $2.2 million worth of improvements in Whistler last year including a seven-kilometre pipeline from Function Junction to Blueberry Drive and two replacement vapourizers.

Centra plans to add two new storage tanks in Function this summer as well and is currently working with the provincial government and RMOW on plans to build a natural gas pipeline from Squamish to meet the resort’s long-term needs.

The BCUC will establish a regulatory timetable to seek customer input into the latest rate increase application.

A pre-hearing conference, during which Centra will explain its application process, is scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 25 at the Coast Whistler Hotel. The meeting is open to the public.

Landry said the RMOW will be involved every step of the way and will support local resident’s concerns.

Centra Gas has nearly 2,000 commercial and residential customers in Whistler.

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