Missouri Gov. Mike Parson commended Fulton city officials for their sense of urgency in finding a fix for a predicament.
Parson visited Fulton City Hall on Tuesday to present Mayor Lowe Cannell and the city with a loan check for $3.3 million to ease expenses related to February's record natural gas prices during an extraordinary cold spell.
Fulton is the first city to receive funding through the Municipal Utility Loan Program established by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Division of Energy. The program began taking applications June 2. Fulton was one of the first to apply, then learned June 8 it had been awarded a loan.
The program was created after Parson signed legislation May 13 to provide $50 million for the five-year, interest-free emergency loans.
"It seems like so many times with everything going on, there are not very many happy occasions with what we went through (in February)," Parson said. "There is light at the end of the tunnel sometimes when you do go through some of these crises that we face.
"I'm so proud of Missouri and the people. The citizens of this state always come to the forefront and figure out a way to come up with solutions. I think that's exactly what we did with this program here," he said.
Fulton - which at one point had a gas reserve account that totaled $5 million - budgeted $2.65 million for 2021 to cover wholesale natural gas expenses for the entire year. However, during a five-day cold spell in
February, the city was forced to pay $3.4 million in expenses.
"It was easily the most catastrophic financial event that Fulton's ever had, so it's a big deal," Cannell said Tuesday. "We know that it's going to take years to replenish the funds that were spent that weekend, but the actions today by the state of Missouri and Gov. Parson with this no-interest loan will help ensure stability for the city of Fulton for many years to come.
"To have those funds back in place is crucial for us. It's nice to know that when municipalities face crises, that the state of Missouri doesn't turn their back, the great state of Missouri has our back. We appreciate that very much," he said.
The city typically pays $3-$3.50 per dekatherm for gas, but prices in February climbed to as much as $224.80 per dekatherm. That shocking increase was a result of frozen natural gas wells and other critical infrastructure, which reduced the amount of natural gas available to utilities.
"That's like going to the gas station one day and buying gas for $2.45 (a gallon) and then, a couple of days later, stopping and filling up your tank again for $224 a gallon," said Darrell Dunlap, the city's utilities superintendent. "The city's natural gas system is accountable to the citizens of Fulton.
"During that cold-weather event, the citizens stepped up. They actually turned their thermostats down. There was a plea the mayor put on his Facebook page and asked and challenged people, and people did that. We really appreciate that help because we needed it," Dunlap said.
Parson emphasized ultimately the loan program must prioritize utility customers.
"I've been pretty adamant about this - I want to make sure that that gets passed down to the consumers out there," Parson said. "They're the ones that got hit the hardest, the ones that had to pay the bills. We had lots of resources for the low-income side, a lot of utility support, a lot of things we could do for them.
"But who always gets left out sometimes in these programs is the middle class, working people out there. We've got to make sure and take care of them, to do whatever we can to help them through that."
Officials with DNR and its Division of Energy also attended Tuesday's ceremony.
"I think (the loan program) is some of the best work that the department has done this year, and the speed with which our team saw the need," acting DNR Director Dru Buntin said. "They were able to respond and get this moving, understanding how important it was for communities like Fulton to have this happen in a timely way.
"We have worked diligently to ensure the program's success, and we are dedicated to being good stewards of the Missouri taxpayer money," he said.