Got an extra eight bucks a month?

Philadelphia Gas Works is asking state regulators to approve a rate hike next year that would boost heating customers' bills by about 6.5 percent.

If the Public Utility Commission approves the rate hike, the average residential-heating bill would rise from $131.48 to $140.02, PGW says.

Pennsylvania Consumer Advocate Sonny Popowski said that he couldn't say whether he thinks the rate hike is justified but that he'd file a complaint with the PUC on behalf of PGW rate-payers, the formal step necessary to ensure a full set of hearings on the rate proposal.

"We want to make sure the commission fully investigates the case and doesn't allow any increase unless and until the company demonstrates it needs the increase," Popowski said. The PUC gave Gas Works permission for a $60 million emergency rate increase in January to cover costs associated with the financial crisis.

The rate request announced yesterday would make that increase permanent and further hike rates to pay for a conservation program and a financing plan for PGW retirees' health benefits.

Gas Works employees who retire with 30 years of service get lifetime health benefits, spokesman Cameron Kline said, and the increase would allow the company to build up a fund that would pay for the benefits.

PGW also plans an extensive set of conservation efforts, including weatherization of homes for low-income, high-usage customers and incentives for customers to get more efficient appliances.

Community Legal Services attorney Phil Bertocci said he will likely be involved in the rate case, and said he will raise several issues about PGW service and the number of customers whose gas has been shut off.

"Even an increase of 6.5 percent is obviously huge, especially considering the fact that PGW's bills are the highest in the snow belt," Bertocci said.

While PGW's base rate is rising, consumers are benefiting from reduced natural-gas prices, which the Gas Works is required to pass on to its customers.

Even if the increase was approved, bills would still be 18 percent lower than they were a year ago, according to a PGW statement.

If the PUC approves the rate hike, it will likely take effect in August.