TRAVERSE CITY — The Michigan attorney general’s office received nearly 300 complaints about high propane prices in two weeks as regulators report signs of easing in Michigan’s propane shortage.
Joy Yearout, spokeswoman for the Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, said the office received 205 phone complaints and 91 written complaints since Jan. 22. Most of the complaints allege price-gouging by propane providers.
“Each complaint is being reviewed in accordance with our procedures,” Yearout said, adding the attorney general’s office is encouraging consumers who suspect gouging to keep receipts and other proof of payment.
Northern Michigan’s federal legislators said they also are receiving lots of complaints about the high cost of propane, which approached $5 a gallon in parts of the Upper Peninsula last week. The statewide average is now at $3.61 a gallon, a 37 percent price rise in one week. Propane prices are now 72 percent higher than a year ago, said Judy Palnau, spokeswoman for the Michigan Public Service Commission.
“Of all the congressional districts in the state, we have the most propane users,” said U.S. Congressman Dan Benishek, R-1st District, who wrote President Barack Obama asking emergency contingency funds be allocated to help northern Michigan residents who struggle to pay their propane bills. “It’s a rural district, and a lot of them depend on it for their heat. The prices have gone through the roof ... some of the prices have been above $5 a gallon. That’s tough on anybody.”
Gov. Rick Snyder declared Michigan in a state of emergency and issued an executive order extending hours of service for propane and heating oil deliveries.
A long cold streak and pipeline issues are blamed for the shortage.
‘There is some good news,” Palnau said. “There are additional supplies that are becoming available and one facility in the Upper Peninsula that was not receiving product started adding propane ... with regard to the Lower Peninsula, the dealers we are talking to say we have adequate supply. Michigan dealers are expecting prices to begin to decrease.”
Many customers are frustrated, though, with high prices and delays in deliveries. Jeanne Penfold, of Lake Ann, said she’s waited more than two weeks for Tri-Gas to deliver propane to her home. Penfold budgets every month for propane and paid to lock in her price before the crisis struck. The delay in getting her tank topped off threatens to disrupt her family budget, she said, leaving her “frustrated” with the slow delivery time.
Penfold said she talked to another woman in the Lake Ann area on Tuesday who is a single mother with four children and who faced a staggering $1,200 bill for her most recent propane delivery. The cost prompted the woman to seek state assistance.
“I order it so I can pay it within 30 days,” Penfold said. “I don’t have just $700 to hand over.”
Scott Overholt, owner of Tri-Gas, said the company has had to prioritize deliveries to customers with low propane levels in their tanks and that Penfold was not short of propane. Penfold said she had about 50 percent in her tank when she put in her order.
“People that are at 10 percent or lower -- they get high priority,” Overholt said. “When we go by her house we will be happy to do it. It’s not like we are ignoring her.”