SUSSEX COUNTY-Customers of Elizabethtown Gas, the utilities company that provides natural gas to some 8,000 customers in Sussex County, including parts of Vernon and Sussex Borough, and 260,000 statewide, will soon find themselves on their own when it comes to getting repairs and maintenance on their heating units. Elizabethtown Gas, purchased last November by AGL Resources of Atlanta, Ga., is phasing out its residential and small commercial appliance business statewide and will not renew any existing "Comfort Care" service contracts with its customers once current ones expire by year's end, the company has said. Under comfort care, customers with a service or maintenance problem called Elizabethtown at 877-REPAIRS. The company would then dispatch trained technicians to individual homes. The annual contract fee covered normal maintenance. As contracts expire, customers will have to find local plumbers and heating and ventilation mechanics to do the work. The contracts were offered under Elizabethtown's old owner, NUI Corp. When that company experienced financial difficulties, it sold Elizabethtown Gas to AGL, That comapny anounced that, "in order to better focus on providing the best possible natural gas service," it would discontinue the comfort care program. "We made the decision earlier in the year to phase out our appliance business in New Jersey," said Martha J. Monfried, AGL's Mid-Atlantic Regional spokesperson. "So we're not going to be selling or servicing any appliances any more in the state. This will allow us to concentrate on our business, which is distributing natural gas." Monfried said that AGL, which owns six other utilities along the East Coast, would honor all existing service contracts through December 2005, "but we're just not issuing new ones." NUI was the subject of an audit investigation last year by the state's Board of Public Utilities when the firm's credit rating dropped substantially. "What that audit discovered was that NUI had suffered almost $100 million in non-utility losses between 2001 and 2003," BPU spokesman Eric Hartsfield said, adding that "Elizabethtown's financial condition was weakened." Last April, NUI agreed to refund some $28 million to Elizabethtown customers and pay a $2-million penalty to the state, Hartsfield said. NUI did make a "down-payment" of about $7 million to help partially reimburse customers by September, with the understanding that the remainder was to have been paid by 2008, he added. In purchasing NUI, both Monfried and the public utilities board said that AGL agreed to make good on the remainder owed by NUI in one payment. Monfried said that customers should have noticed a reduction in this January's heating bills as a result. When asked if state regulators had forced NUI to sell Elizabethtown, Hartsfield replied, "No, that was a company decision." The state, he added, has no power to regulate appliance services contracts. The end of the comfort care program does not change the company's responsibility for gas leaks. Anyone suspecting a lead, said Monfried, should "call our leak number (1-800-492-4009) and then we will send someone out immediately. If there is a problem, we'll fix it." The company's Sussex County customers live in Franklin, Hamburg, Hardyston, Lafayette, Ogdensburg, Sparta, Sussex Borough and Vernon. Monfried said only about 34,500 Elizabethtown customers have received comfort care services, added Monfried, who said that such services range from as little as $18 yearly for maintenance and repair of water heaters, to as much as $267.95 a year for furnaces, air conditioning and other "major" household appliances. The company will continue to offer monthly budget payments, Monfried said.