The 24-percent rate increase sought by New Jersey Natural Gas ultimately is in the hands of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, but regulators can count on getting an earful from a rising tide of opponents at hearings on April 27 in Freehold Township.

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In Belmar today, Mayor Matt Doherty gathered a half-dozen of his peers, several advocacy groups and small business owners to form the Say No To 24 Coalition.

Supporting Doherty were Mayors John Ducey of Brick, Chris Siciliano of Ocean Township, Fred Tagliarini of Aberdeen, Ed Donovan of Manasquan, Jeff Ellentuck of Roosevelt and Brian Wilton of Lake Como.

Also lining up against the proposal were New Jersey Citizen Action, the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, and the Belmar St. Vincent de Paul Society.

NJNG applied for the increase in November 2015. In its statement, the company positioned it as a request to recoup $124,000,000 of some $806,000,000 it has spent on delivery and related infrastructure since its last increase, eight years ago. The petition is under review by an administrative law judge. The full NJNG statement is below.

Late last week, Ocean County Freeholder Joe Vicari, on behalf of the board, urged BPU President Richard Mroz to reject the request outright. Coalition leaders are asking local government leaders throughout Ocean and Monmouth to pass resolutions against it.

Published reports peg the increase in an average customer's monthly bill at $21.69. Citing the figure, the coalition issued data from New Jersey Resources' proxy statement outlining the company's top five wage earners, representing almost $13,000,000 in income, claiming that the figures reflect raises of 75 to 263 percent since 2013.

In a prepared statement, Doherty challenged NJNG to tighten its belt, as municipal officials have done under the state's mandatory two-percent cap.

"Twenty one dollars a month is money for food, money for prescriptions, money for gas in people's cars . . . money people do not have to spare," Doherty said.

Belmar restauranteur Michael Federici, who also runs an establishment in Freehold, claimed that the full rate increase would raise his monthly bill for the Belmar location by more than $300.

"As a small business owner we watch every dollar, even small increases can mean the difference between turning a profit or not," Federici said.

The hearings take place April 27, 4 PM and 5:30 PM, at the Freehold Township Municipal Building, 1 Municipal Plaza, Schanck Road.

Coalition members say that they will provide transportation for attendees, and are asking interested people to contact them via e-mail,

The statement from New Jersey Natural Gas:

"On November 13, 2015, New Jersey Natural Gas (NJNG) filed a rate request with the Board of Public Utilities (BPU). Since our last rate case was approved in 2008, NJNG has invested approximately $806 million into our system to support the safe, reliable delivery of natural gas to our customers. Of that, we are seeking to recover approximately $148 million in our delivery rates. Even with the proposed increase, customers' NJNG bills will still be 29 percent lower than when our last rate case was approved due to the decline in wholesale natural gas prices

Approximately 94 percent of our request is related to our substantial infrastructure investments, as well as costs associated with Superstorm Sandy and other pipeline integrity programs. The rest covers the cost to run our business.

The BPU will conduct a thorough review and assessment of our request and, ultimately decide what will be included in our rates."

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