Columbia Gas is now offering two payment plans for customers facing high bills following the Merrimack Valley gas disaster.

The utility company resumed billing at the end of December, saddling some customers with retroactive bills for hundreds of dollars that are due before the end of January.

After initially saying it would offer individual payment plans for affected customers, Columbia Gas announced more specific plans on Monday.

Customers can elect to make a down payment against the balance of their bill, and then pay off the rest of the charges in equal installments along with their standard monthly bills for the next several months. Or, customers can receive a new total — their current charges, plus their estimated gas usage over the time period of their payment plan — to pay in equal installments over the next several months.

Lawrence resident Cristen Dion, who is facing $882.33 in charges, called the estimated payment plan "ridiculous" and said it would amount to her paying more for gas than what she would typically use. 

“I don't understand where they're getting their figures from. I don't know how they're coming up with that,” she said.

Columbia Gas spokesman Scott Ferson said the plans were based on the gas company's existing rules for payment plans and that "customers will never pay more than the actual charges they are obligated to pay."

Should a customer who chooses the estimated payment plan end up using less gas than was forecast, Ferson said the last payment of the plan would be lower than in previous months.

“If neither option works for a customer, we will work with them to find a solution that fits their needs," he said.

Columbia Gas halted billing for three months following the Sept. 13 explosions and fires as it focused on immediate recovery efforts.

But billing resumed in late December for about 3,000 customers least affected by the crisis — those whose gas service was restored within a few days. Some residents, like Dion and Paul Craney of North Andover, were shocked to find they were being charged upward of $800 with just weeks to pay.

Columbia Gas has since apologized to customers for its lack of communication in restarting the billing process.

Dion received two bills totaling $882.33, and has to pay both before the end of January. She's preparing for neck surgery and has been out of work, receiving only about 60 percent of her salary through workers' compensation. Her husband works in sales, on commission.

Worried about how to pay for the charges, Dion inquired about payment plans over the weekend.

The first plan Columbia Gas offered would see her making a down payment of $221, followed by payments of $110.22 on top of her regular bill for six months to make up the $882, she said.

The second plan included the same initial payment, followed by monthly payments of $436.22 — the remainder of her current bill, plus her estimated gas usage — over six months, beginning Feb. 1, Dion said. In both cases, Dion was told she would have to cancel her automatic payment plan until her extended payment period had concluded.

Neither option seemed appealing. Instead, Dion said she and her husband will use money they had set aside to pay the bill in full upfront.

Ferson said there is no predetermined time period for the payment plans, noting that Columbia Gas representatives will work with customers to determine their individual needs.

Customers will not be charged a penalty if they opt for a payment plan, and no one is in danger of having their gas turned off due to payment issues, he said.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said he would reserve judgment on the payment plans until he saw how they played out for residents.

He did, however, set up a city email address, mygasbilliswrong@cityoflawrence.com, to give customers another avenue to escalate their issues with the billing process.

As of Monday, Rivera said a “couple of people” had sent emails, while others had called his office for help.

“We follow up with Columbia Gas, and are also telling (residents) to call the billing agency and let them know that this is outrageous," he said.

Customers with questions or issues about their bills should contact Columbia Gas' customer helpline at 1-866-388-3239.

Follow Lisa Kashinsky on Twitter @lisakashinsky.

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