the Beacon Journal editorial board

Akron is by far the largest community in Summit County not to offer a natural gas aggregation plan to its residents, providing savings and consumer protection against rate increases. Fortunately, City Council President Mike Freeman is moving ahead with legislation that would put an aggregation issue on the March primary ballot.

Freeman plans to introduce legislation on Monday, with Dec. 16 the deadline for filing for the March 15 election.

As the trend toward utility aggregation picked up steam early in the decade, Akron lagged behind on natural gas aggregation. Initially, the slow pace was a nod to East Ohio Gas, which is now a distribution company, not a supplier. Later, the thinking was, competition was sufficient among multiple suppliers.

But even with todayís low prices, there are solid reasons behind Freemanís legislation, ones every community in the county except Peninsula and Lakemore have embraced. (Boston Heights, Hudson and Fairlawn are expected to have gas aggregation issues on the March ballot.)

First, an estimated savings of from $30 to $40 a year for the average residential customer, although modest, would provide some cushion against rising sewer rates, driven by a federal Environmental Protection Agency mandate to fix combined sewer overflows.

And by acting now on a gas aggregation plan, the city would be putting residents in a far better position when rising demand for the cleaner-burning fuel, now plentiful, starts to push prices up. By banding together in a large group and bargaining as a whole through the city, consumers are much more likely to get lower rates . For those who want to continue to negotiate on their own, an opt-out provision would be available.

Finally, a group purchasing plan would help consumers by steering clear of pitfalls such as automatic renewal contracts. Unless consumers read the fine print in such contracts, some paying under $3 a thousand cubic feet, they can find themselves suddenly paying $5 per thousand cubic feet, far above the market price. Having the city negotiate to buy gas in bulk would protect against price gouging.

No utility aggregation program can promise to offer the lowest price all the time. What communities across Summit County and Northeast Ohio have found is that voting to opt into aggregation provides the best chance of maximizing their bargaining power against big suppliers.

Discussion of gas aggregation in Akron started early this year, but got pushed to the back burner because of the need to focus on fixing the combined sewer overflow problem. That sewer issue is still unfolding, but Akron should push ahead with a gas aggregation issue in time for the March ballot.

That would give the city plenty of time, when prices are low, to begin the negotiations necessary to make sure that as Akron ratepayers shoulder higher sewer bills, they have a good chance of getting the best gas prices possible.