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Cost of living slid in February

But consumer prices rose .3% for the nation

In stark contrast to the rising costs and rolling blackouts for power users in California, falling electricity rates pushed Wasatch Front utility bills lower in February, First Security Bank reported Wednesday.

A 7.5 percent decline in residential utility bills helped lower the overall Wasatch Front Cost of Living Index by 0.4 percent for the month, said First Security economist Kelly K. Matthews. Nationally, consumer prices rose 0.3 percent in February.

Matthews said consumer prices were unusually stable along the Wasatch Front last month as six of the 10 cost categories were unchanged from January. Along with the 7.5 percent decline in utility bills, local transportation costs were 0.1 percent lower in February, the fifth consecutive decline. Lower gasoline prices were cited.

The only two local spending categories with higher prices for the month were groceries, up 0.7 percent on rising prices for lettuce and onions, and clothing, up 1.2 percent.

Over the past six months, the Wasatch Front cost of living has risen 2.6 percent, compared to a 3.6 percent rise nationwide. Since the bank began tracking local costs in March 1988, the index has risen 43.4 percent compared to a 50.9 percent rise nationally.

Surprisingly, considering the big jump in natural gas rates locally, the utilities category remains below where it was in 1988 at 90.6 percent. The biggest jump in inflation locally has been in housing, up 77.6 percent over the past 13 years. By comparison, average U.S. utility bills have risen 40.1 percent and housing costs 49.3 percent during that same period.

Nationally, the 0.3 percent rise in the Consumer Price Index last month was half the 0.6 percent increase in January. Falling prices for energy helped offset higher costs for food and prescription medicines — the latter posting their biggest increase since mid-1998.

The so-called core rate of U.S. inflation, which omits the volatile food and energy sectors, also rose 0.3 percent, identical to January.

According to the Associated Press, that 0.3 rise in both categories was a slightly worse inflation rate than the 0.2 percent rise analysts had been expecting. For the year so far, consumer prices are rising at an annual rate of 5.6 percent, compared with a 3.4 percent increase for all of last year. Most of this year's increase is due to higher energy prices in January, which shot up 3.9 percent that month.

Natural gas prices shot up a whopping 17.4 percent in January but gave back 2.4 percent of that last month.

The CPI report, along with the failure Tuesday of the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates as much as Wall Street wanted, continued to rattle the stock market, as the Dow Jones industrial average fell 66 points in early trading Wednesday.